24th August 2019

Farm News

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I am writing this on 15th August after heavy rain yesterday and another deluge forecast for tomorrow. The rainfall for this year shows that, despite the few hot days we have enjoyed, it has been at least an averagely wet year so far. January 35 mm (1.4 ins, Feb 77 mm (3.1 ins), March 115 mm (4.65 ins), April 43 mm (1.75 ins), May 37 mm (1.5 ins), June 131.5 mm (5.3 ins), July 48 mm (1.95 ins) and August to date 42 mm (1.7 ins).

The natural world has benefited from this season in that there are huge amounts of fruit on the trees and hedges with more beech nuts than I can remember ever seeing. The insect numbers are also high – try riding a cycle without glasses and windscreens of less
aerodynamically efficient vehicles (my Landrover) quickly become plastered in splattered bugs. The house martin and swallow numbers appear to be much higher this year which is great to see – more insects means a better feeding season and consequently a good breeding season.

3 barn owl chicks have been reared and flown from their nest on the farm. We erected an owl box 2 years ago but this is the first year that it has had residents. The chicks have been weighed and ringed by the Hawk Conservancy Trust team. I have learnt a lot from this brood – the success of a barn owl breeding season depends upon the number of voles that are available in that season – few voles mean less food means no owl chicks, the adult owls leave their kill with the chicks at night then roost elsewhere during the day, leaving the chicks to effectively fend for themselves in the owl box. The chicks hiss very loudly if they feel threatened and also have a strong unpleasant smell despite their clean white appearance.

Harvest has been good so far with most farmers reporting above average yields but this wet weather will affect the quality of the crops left to harvest – we have only cut about 20% of our wheat acreage so a long way to go yet. The Brexit scenario is a mixed blessing – grain traders are trying to export lots of grain before 31st October with barley going to destinations such as Portugal but that is a short time window to do a lot of business. Wheat will start being loaded when enough is available to fill the ships. The weaker pound against other currencies makes the UK grain price competitive and there are still traditional homes for our barley exports such as Morocco and Saudi Arabia which will be unaffected by the EU trading situation.

The possible trade deal with the US is of a great concern – despite the American assurances, it is 100 % true that they use growth hormones and routinely use antibiotics to boost growth rates of their stock including beef animals. The chlorine washed chicken debate is well known but do remember that the UK producers do not need to do this because our production methods are much more hygienic – the Americans need to kill bugs such as salmonella that is common within their production systems. Most American beef is produced in intensive yards with no access to grazing grassland and instead fed on gm maize and soya. Treatment with growth hormones and antibiotics is routine to maximise growth rates but of course can encourage antibiotic resistance which has implications for all of us.

Contrast that to the British system where the animals eat grazing grass for much of the year and are only housed if the weather is harsh and then fed on silage which is preserved grass – any treatment with growth promoting hormones is illegal. In the UK antibiotics are only used for treatment if the animal is ill and under veterinary supervision.

There has been lots of media comment about the contribution farm animals make to global warming. Remember that 2/3rds of the UK farmland cannot be used for arable cropping because of soil type, high rainfall, height and steep slopes. The animals graze this land to produce meat and dairy products which we consume. The grass will grow in these areas regardless of political opinions and eventually rot producing methane and CO2 gases – this will happen regardless of whether it is grazed or not. Food production produces about 10% of UK greenhouse gases whilst transport produces about 30% – if you want to reduce your own greenhouse profile do not fly in aircraft and choose a more economical car. A vegetarian diet needs variety which necessitates importing food from warmer countries especially during the winter – what are the CO2 emissions of transporting that to the UK especially when air freighted to keep it fresh?

August 11th is the day notionally when the UK runs out of food produced on these islands – we are now less than 60% self-sufficient compared to 78% self-sufficient in 1984.

Imported food is not necessarily produced to the high UK standards (many countries use pesticide products that are banned in this country), will not have the same environmental safeguards in production that we have, creates lots of CO2 emissions in transporting it to these shores and may involve clearing rain forest in Brazil or the Far East to produce that food eg soya or maize. Look for the Union flag on produce.

For those advocating that the UK return to organic farming remember that the quantity of food produced will drop by about 50% and that organic farming systems rely upon animal manures to put fertility into the ground. No animals, no muck, no soil fertility and low yields. Organic systems rely upon ploughing to bury weeds and trash in the fields – but ploughing creates huge amounts of CO2 and methane as the soil is inverted and breaks down – not an environmentally good idea. Conventional farming increasingly relies upon low till or no till cultivations which minimises these gas emissions.

The future is great for UK farming with many new ideas and techniques that will produce quality food and protect the environment. The NFU’s ambition is that UK agriculture is carbon neutral by 2040 and confident that it can be achieved – just 20 years away but we are already on the way to achieving this.

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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