18th February 2018

Farm Diary

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I am writing this on 12th February and although the weather is still wintry the natural world is waking up after its winter slumbers. The days are longer – it is approaching 6 pm before properly dark on a good day – the clocks go forward on 24th March this year so soon warm light evenings, barbeques etc will be with us – hooray.

The farm is also beginning to emerge from its winter hibernation with grass and crops showing the first signs of growth with crocus and daffodils flowering. The challenge for me is to be patient and balance enthusiasm against reality. A few dry days don’t mean that the soil is ready to cultivate and plant the spring crops. Every days delay in planting means that the crops have fewer days to grow and mature using that wonderful daylight before harvest thus yield is limited. The balance is to keep off the soils until they are warm and dry enough so that the newly planted seeds germinate and emerge quickly. Early plantings followed by a cold wet spell in March which can rot the seed and certainly limit yield are not a good idea. Doing nothing can be hard.

I was at a Conference last week and several speakers asked for more accurate weather forecasts looking at least a month ahead. If these were available the crop modelling that is available now could indicate whether (apologies) a treatment is necessary to keep a crop healthy. Let me give an example – in the South and East of the UK a disease in wheat called septoria tritici that thrives in wet weather can be devastating to crops if unchecked. It damages the wheat leaves and they turn brown and are then unable to photosynthesise and the crop yield will then be a tiny fraction of its potential – effectively the crop’s lungs are destroyed. Selecting and planting wheat varieties that have some resistance to the disease play an important role in controlling the disease but there is also a need to protect the plant – once it takes hold it cannot be cured. If we had access to accurate weather forecasts that said for example “no rain for 4 weeks in May” then sprays would be unnecessary during that period – a saving to the grower and crops that are closer to organic for the consumer. In a few years better weather forecasts that accurately look weeks ahead rather than days with 100% reliability may be available to allow a more targeted approach to crop growing programmes – it should be a high priority for researchers.

The ewe flock is now only 25 strong but they are looking suitably ponderous with some nearly as wide as long so hopefully the lamb numbers will be good. With a small flock it is not worth the cost of having them scanned to find out the numbers in advance. Lambing will commence in early March and as always the priority will be to have strong healthy lambs born and teach them to suckle from their mums very quickly. The first milk which is known as colostrum is full of antibodies which are essential for the lambs to fight infection and disease and must be consumed with the first few hours of life. Beyond that time the lamb’s intestine wall changes and is not able to absorb the antibodies. Most lambs naturally have these skills but all must be checked and maybe 15% taught how to suckle which can be a very frustrating task. Lambs that have not suckled urgently need this warm first milk otherwise they quickly become lethargic and chilled. Persuading a reluctant lamb to drink can be very time consuming – even if you put the ewe’s teat in the lamb’s mouth it will not necessarily suck and they certainly don’t listen to reason! If this happens at 1 am and your main thought is going home to a warm bed the wisdom of shepherding is considered. These days this essential milk can be fed into the lamb using a rubber tube. This easily slips into the stomach and the milk can be poured from a jug into the bowl or syringe at the top of the pipe. The soft pipe is designed to allow only a gentle flow of milk resulting in a fed happy lamb (and relieved shepherd).

By the time you read this the National Farmers Union will have held their election for the next President. For the first time a woman is one of the candidates and as Deputy President for the last 4 years she has a good chance of winning. Whoever wins will have a challenging time with Brexit adding to the usual issues that face our political representatives – good luck to the winner.

Julian Lewis

[Please note that this message is not posted on behalf of Bentworth Parish Council and does not necessarily reflect the Parish Council’s policy]

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