Time to get back on top of all the jobs before spring

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Much better weather as we head towards March; spring was in the air last week but I expect it’s a little early to get carried away. However, daffodils and crocus are everywhere now and blossom is appearing on the plum and in the hedgerows here and there.

This year I am going to vary the numbers of heifers over at Tillington in order to keep on top of things if I can. Not sure if hauling animals back and forth is much more cost effective than hauling grass though, but that is the choice. I either have to cut the surplus grass for silage or make sure that there are enough heifers over there to keep on top of the spring flush, but rapidly de-stock if and when it becomes dry and the growth slows dramatically.

It took us all of last week to get all the various bits and pieces in the dairy and parlour, including our new backing-gate to work after the power cuts and the spike which destroyed so much of the soft wear and other sensitive bits of the control systems.

Gone are the days when we had a switch to turn on the vacuum pump and another switch for the old ice-bank cooling tank. These days everything is much more complicated with control boxes, transformers, and all sorts of other things which I do not understand. Some of the engineers themselves seem to struggle with some aspects of it all which is more worrying. A protection mechanism is now being fitted to prevent this happening again.

I have been assessing silage stocks this week; just to make sure that where I think I am with my monitoring is in fact the actual position. It seems that we have plenty of good quality grass silage to see us through quite easily, but the maize silage is a bit tight but should be fine considering that we will have plenty of fresh grass within a month or so.

Maize quality has been good and is improving as usual having been in the clamp for some time; it is a forage which improves as we go through winter. Cows are milking well and averaging 29 litres a day, but we have not quite reached the 30 litre target I had set myself this winter.

Fertility seems good but always needs to improve, feet are now excellent, and mastitis levels are under control and reducing slowly. Cow condition is very good and we are tinkering a bit with the ration to see if we can get a bit more milk from forage, and make sure cows do not get too fat towards the end of lactation.

We are getting some really nice Aberdeen Angus cross calves from the heifers, and since George has been put in charge of calf rearing and Gwenan has tweaked a few things, including increasing the amount they are fed, our bull and beef calves are now really big and strong with sheen to their coats when they are sold each week.

We are certainly in spring mode as we started spreading the muck on our maize fields last week and have finished both Milford and Tillington with good ground conditions. As other areas are too wet, we will now start ploughing the muck in and hopefully we should have 200 acres of our maize ground ploughed in a week or so; given that 70 acres was ploughed in the winter. Jake tells me that the days are drawing in over in Victoria and that they have started calving at Max Jelbart’s farm with autumn now on the doorstep.

Fires have caused serious damage in some parts of the Australian states, and a fellow Nuffield Scholar just north of Melbourne lost 7000 sheep in a fast moving grassland fire, where hot embers were driven by the gale force winds which feed the fires, landing a kilometre or two in front, starting new fires.

Farmers in flood areas here are warned of the long haul ahead of them in getting money from insurance companies due to the sheer number of farms affected, and that flood water will take some weeks if not months to drain delaying assessment of losses.

The farming community however has acted speedily indeed, with pledges of forage and bedding to livestock farmers. With some 35,000 acres under water, there will be little if any hay or silage made on the Somerset Levels this year and as the water is not clean, but polluted with sewage, diesel and other pollutants it will take time for the land to recover. By the time the land has been prepared after the flood water subsides; it will be autumn by the time it gets re-seeded.

Scientists in the UK have developed a genetically modified potato which is resistant to blight, a disease that has over the years caused huge losses and of course famine.

A three year GM trial has boosted resistance to late blight by introducing a gene from a South American wild relative of the potato, enabling the plant to recognise the blight pathogen, triggering a natural defence mechanism. This research is the latest in a long line of alternatives needed to cut the use of chemicals in agriculture. As you would expect, there are the usual opponents, but these varieties are not only blight resistant but weed and virus resistant too, which means they do not need to be refrigerated or gassed to stop them sprouting.

As the study was funded with public money, I understand that the genetics will be available to all plant breeders under licence, which will lead to huge cost savings for the industry. Late blight costs British farmers around £60 million each year; about half total production costs.

Cutting out the many passes with a sprayer and fungicide, diesel and soil compaction, it will be of great benefit claim scientists. GM has the advantage of speeding up development, and as senior scientist Professor Jonathan Jones of the Sainsbury’s Laboratory explained: ‘Conventional breeding is so slow that by the time a gene is successfully introduced into a cultivated variety, the blight pathogen could have already overcome the resistance’

The feat had already been achieved by agri-chemical company BASF some time ago, but they withdrew in the face of threats to field trials by extremists and uncertainty in the regulatory environment. Professor Jones notes that the mood is changing and Defra are no longer putting obstacles in the way.

This is very good news, but again needless delays of many years caused by those who think they know best, and equally to blame, those in authority who listen to them.