Saturday, March 23, 2019

Making maps work

January 2, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

Judith Tooth visits a Suffolk farm where soil and yield maps are helping inform ever more precise farming methods.

If anyone says Suffolk is flat, Mike Porter tells them to come to the undulating countryside near Halesworth, where he farms with his son, James. So undulating, in fact, that the need for a good seedbed on the clay caps of the steep hills was the main reason the pair started variable rate seeding four years ago.

“First it was GPS, then we bought a sprayer with automatic shut-off,” says Mike, who is the third generation of his family to farm at Walpole. “That saved us 10% on our chemicals bill.

“Then we had the whole farm mapped with SoilQuest, so that when we drew up our next drilling plan we could designate the seed where it was needed – less on the sandier soils and more on the clays.

“Before using variable rate seeding we could look at a hill and see by eye the difference in the crop with the changing soil type; now the crop is green all over.”

For the past two years, yield maps have been produced off the combine. Alongside this, James’s wife Laura has compiled all the farm’s drainage maps on to single maps on Gatekeeper.

There are often several maps covering one area reflecting, for example, field amalgamations or drainage works. Laura has launched her own business, Mapping Solutions, to offer this service to other farmers. She also wrote the instruction book for Gatekeeper Express.

“Next, we will be looking more closely at where our best areas of gross margin are, per 10m square, to see which areas might not be worth cropping that year. It’s no surprise that it doesn’t pay to crop the first six or 12 metres at each end of the field, but we are finding yields as much as four times greater in some areas than in others.

“It would be good to be able to put some of these areas into Countryside Stewardship, but at the moment no driving is allowed on land under agreement.”

Environmental features

The farm is in its second year of a Mid Tier agreement, following earlier ELS and HLS agreements, with flower-rich margins and seven areas of winter bird food sown near areas of woodland or good hedges. A small family shoot also helps wild bird populations.

There are 32 ponds on the farm, most of them at the intersection of four fields, where in the past horses would come to drink. Many of the ponds were restored with the help of Suffolk County Council grants 20 or so years ago, and continue to be cleaned out on a rotational basis.

The woodlands, planted with council or Forestry Commission grants, are now well established. Although not commercially productive, they do help wildlife, and boughs from the trees provide some timber which is turned into woodchips.

The woodchips fuel a 47kW biomass boiler which heats the farm house and offices. A second boiler, with a capacity of 470kW, burns Hesston bales of linseed straw from the previous year’s harvest for drying wheat in the farm’s 2000t store.

This year was the first in Mike’s memory that any grain did not need drying. Instead two solar arrays, producing up to 75kW electricity, powered fans to cool the grain as it was coming in at such high temperatures.

And, rather than bale more linseed straw, this harvest it was pushed up in the field with a buck rake to be burned, and the ash spread back on the fields.

Combinable crops

Half of the farm is down to winter wheat, including some seed production for KWS, with the rest down to linseed and spring naked oats – both also for seed production, vining peas and oilseed rape.

The total area farmed, 485ha, includes two neighbouring holdings farmed on contract for Richard Symes and David Eagling. At harvest, all the grain is weighed in off the combine, calculated according to which farm it is from, dried if necessary and stored.

Linseed and oats are grown on seed contracts, while wheat and oilseed rape are marketed through pools with Framlingham Farmers. Inputs for the three farms are also bought from Framlingham Farmers, with the requirements for each farm pooled and any balancing of amounts used made at quarterly stock controls.

The past four years have seen a move to no-tilling on any fields going into wheat after oilseed rape or linseed. They are simply sprayed with glyphosate in front of the drill, a 4m Horsch Sprinter fitted with Canadian-designed Bourgault VOS coulters.

The remaining fields are cultivated with a McConnel Shakaerator followed by a pass with a Great Plains X-Press, left to weather and then sprayed with glyphosate prior to drilling – again, with the same drill. With both systems the wheat is sown in bands to allow light and air around each plant to produce an even crop.

“I think we’ve mastered no-tilling now, and although there are areas where we might do more, I don’t think we will go 100% no-till. But it is beneficial to have some straw debris lying on the surface because it protects the soil and dissipates the energy of the rainfall. The rain hits the debris or the crop leaves rather than the soil itself, and the risk of erosion is reduced.

Controlled traffic farming

“That’s part of where cover crops come in – although here we haven’t had much success with them. Two years ago we sowed 30ha and the slugs ate the lot. I can’t see the point in spending money on seed and then having to buy slug pellets when we’re meant to be helping the environment.

“But, for example, where we’re growing vining peas after wheat and there might be eight months with nothing on the soil, a cover crop could be sown there. Then again, the clay soils here won’t dry quickly in the spring and the sunshine won’t be enough to take the moisture away.

“I’d say we have moved towards controlled traffic farming, the tramlines have been in the same place for the past four years. Ideally we’d work with 6, 12 and 36m widths, but we can’t justify that sort of equipment on our size of farm. So we take it as far as possible. We also use large diameter low pressure Michelin tyres to reduce compaction.”

A certified location (CL) caravan site on the farm, for a maximum of five caravans, brings people into the countryside and is a great opportunity to talk about farming. Over the years, the family has made some good friends, even going on holiday several times with one couple. There are also two fishing lakes, one let to a syndicate for trout fishing, the other for coarse fishing, selling tickets over the door.

It was 1912 when Mike’s grandfather moved from nearby Westhall to take on the farm at Walpole, passing it on to his daughter, and, in turn, to Mike himself. Now another shift of responsibilities is underway, as the third generation gradually makes way for the fourth, and fifth.

“I’m taking more of a back seat now,” says Mike.

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