Serving the Farming Industry across East Anglia for 35 Years
Widely regarded as ‘the Bible’ for every farmer, the Agricultural Notebook was first published more than 130 years ago. And I found myself revisiting... Farming is relearning what it forgot

Widely regarded as ‘the Bible’ for every farmer, the Agricultural Notebook was first published more than 130 years ago. And I found myself revisiting notebooks from the 1800s when I was  compiling the latest edition.

Changes in farming policy and management meant we looked back at old editions and found things that as an industry we’d forgotten – and that are now coming back full circle. It’s quite amazing.

In the 1800s, for example, farmers knew the importance of grasslands being made up of lots of different species. And the latest edition reflects the fact that we’ve started to increase the mixes in grasslands and herbal leys.

More science and tech

Much of this age-old knowledge is combined with modern science and technology – a back to the future step. In particular, chapter authors – who were drawn from across Europe – were asked to focus more on environmental challenges.

This reflecting growing interest in the issue, changes to post-Brexit agricultural policy, the growing number of farmers who adopting regenerative farming practices and the NFU target to reach net zero by 2040.

Chapters on farm wildlife and resource management reflect this too.

While it’s a farmer-friendly book, it pulls no punches in saying that agriculture needs to do more for wildlife. But it encourages farmers to look at their farm’s resources as a whole, so they can manage them more effectively.

The 21st edition also includes a new chapter dealing with ruminant and monogastric nutrition. Applied nutrition is a lot more scientific than it used to be. These days we  talk about how it can be used control the type of milk produced, rather than just for feed.

Additional science is included in the soil management chapter, as our understanding of soil has continued to develop. And there’s a much greater focus on renewable energy as farmers look to further non-agricultural income generation. 

Cow in Cotswolds UK posing for the photo

Bigger picture

Readers of the chapter on dairying and beef production are encouraged to look at the bigger picture, says its author Paul Ward, who is a research and programme manager at Duchy College’s Rural Business School.

Regarding climate change and emissions, cattle have had a very negative image recently, but Paul’s chapter examines ways that grassland sequesters carbon – and other ways farmers can reduce emissions.

It focuses on efficiencies in the system and how to reduce the carbon cost of meat and milk. But it also examines ways to prevent disease, rather than just treat it. And it looks at ways to use technology and data to make better decisions.

Adding value to products is another important topic as producers look for further income streams in the post-Brexit world. This includes a bigger focus on adding value, marketing, branding, and story-telling – focusing on the positives of cattle.

Old and new knowledge 

As farming and science continue to develop and become more specialised, the Agricultural Notebook is moving from being a ‘bible’ to ‘the essential reference book’, which now includes a large number of suggested further resources.

It includes a chapter on crop production by Louisa Dines, principle lecturer in agronomy at Harper Adams University, She says growers now need wider knowledge than in the past, and to combine age-old practices with new science.

Successful UK crop production increasingly requires an excellent understanding of technology, biological and agronomic principles as well as business and marketing principles.

This demands the integration of new technologies and products with a return to some of the basic principles of good agricultural practice – including maintining soil health and diverse and resilient rotations.

Agricultural Notebook co-author Richard Soffe is an emeritus fellow at Duchy & Bicton Colleges’ Rural Business School. The 21st edition is available from Waterstones and on Amazon.