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Crop Advice & Expertise

Life as a farm manager: Q&A with James Brown - Crop Focus TV: Episode 2

Video Transcript

Hello, this is CropFocus TV. I’m Ed.

And I’m Jack and we’re here at the sunny South Pickenham Estate near Swaffham. Here to meet with James Brown, the Farm Manager.

Go on Ed, let’s go see if he’s in his office.

Farmer Focus

Morning James, thanks for joining us. I’m wondering if you could just sort of kick things off with a bit of background on yourself, how you got into farming and how long you’ve been Farm Manager at South Pickenham Estates.

Morning Jack. Yeah, grew up on the Isle of Wight, we have a family farm over there so always been around farming. When I left school, went to Sparsholt College, then from Sparsholt College, went to Harper Adams. Then had a couple of jobs after Harper Adams to moving here. I’ve now been here 3 years.

So James, what are your thoughts and feelings about how the industry’s going to change over the next 5-10 years?

Obviously the government is sort of focusing more on environmental farming, the use of min-till and no-till establishments. Not quite sure how that’s going to fit in with the vegetable growers because obviously you can’t min-till carrots and potatoes and that kind of thing so yeah, going to be interesting I think.

Do you think during that period so 5-10 years, this farm in particular is going to have to take on, you know, various different changes to the rotation and how you do things?

No I think the next sort of 5 years this farm is very much going to look the same as it is now. Just got water abstraction licences tied up for the next 5 years. We’ve just done a deal with a veg grower for the next 5 years as well. So yeah, for the next 5 years definitely this farm’s going to look very similar.

So yeah, it wouldn’t be an interview with a farmer without mentioning the B word, Brexit. How do you think that’s going to impact you and the running of South Pickenham Estates?

Yeah Brexit. No one really knows what’s going to happen yet but yeah obviously people need to be looking at new income streams like here we have a grain sort which we get an income from. We rent out some land for veg production so that’s going to help our income. And then losing the subsidies as well so people just need to be looking at new avenues of income really.

Gadget Focus

We’re here with the farms precision drill, just wondering James how long you’ve had the drill and what make it is.

Yep this is our Vaderstad Tempo drill. We’re currently in our third season with it. Reason why we bought the drill, the original sort of farm’s beet drill was sort of coming to the end of its life so we looked at this drill just purely because we can drill more crops with it. So currently we’re drilling OSR with it, maize with it, sugar beet and dwarf beans.

It must be handy being able to drill quite a few different crops with one drill, has it helped on particular crops? OSR? Has that been very different to what you’ve done before?

Yeah OSR establishment now is a lot better than it was before. With planting more into an even seed depth and even seed spacing which is producing more of an even plant and helping further on down the line as a management tool with fungicides and plant growth regulators.

And do you see the benefits, you said an even plant, do you see the benefits of that even plant into the spring in the OSR?

Definitely, definitely. It’s an all even crop all the way across the field, no sort of patches apart from the odd pigeon sort of bit of damage but yeah it’s a lot more even establishment.

Yeah it’s been a bit of a learning curve. First year we had some sort of, quite gappy beet, but Vaderstad has been working with us, done quite a few modifications to it and things are improving all the time with it.

I noticed some of the designs of it are quite distinctive, is there any particular, the chimney on there, is that for a particular purpose?

The reason why it’s up high is when we’re drilling OSR with it, in dusty conditions that it’s not sucking in too much dust and straw debris and that kind of thing. So yeah just easy airflow.

And in terms of speed of use, what kind of speed are you able to drill at with this in different crops?

Sugar beet we’re drilling sort of 8k with it, OSR you can sort of venture up to sort of 12, and then it really comes into its element when drilling maize, sort of 12-14k with it.

Is that quite consistent across different soil types?

Yeah obviously a more cloddy seed bed you got a lot more sort of bounce on the unit but yeah it’s just all down to operator really, keeping an eye on the conditions and getting the best out of the drill.

And how many hectares are you drilling in total of sugar beet with this drill?

This year we’ve got 200 hectares of sugar beet. Last year we put in 300 with it.

So if you get good weather and a clean run through that 200 hectares, how long do you expect that to take?

We should be done within 5-6 days with it, as long as the weather stays dry.

We’ve been waiting a long time for decent weather.

A precision drill is quite a complex bit of kit. Would you be able to talk through how it all works?

Yeah certainly. So at the top, that’s where the air is sort of drawn in, sort of follow it down through the black tubes and then air is drawn down to the seed disc here where the seeds are blown against the holes on the disc and as the disc goes round, it comes up against a rubber stop which blocks the airflow. Seed then falls down the shoot here behind this red plate, comes out underneath the rubber roller and the rubber roller stops the seed rolling in the furrow.

And this is set up for sugar beet at the moment? How would you change it for OSR?

So at the moment, these are sugar beet discs, so change that to OSR, the difference in the disc would be more holes around the circumference and smaller diameter holes so the seed isn’t blowing through them.

So would you set it up for each individual field, some of these settings down here?

Definitely. So obviously OSR we’d be going in fairly shallow with it. Then on the wheels on the back, just a slight bit of pressure on the wheels so we’re getting a nice even soil to seed contact.

Are there settings in the cab as well that you can alter?

Yeah the whole drill is run on an iPad, wireless system between the drill and the iPad, when it comes to calibrating the drill, you just bring the iPad out with you, stick your bag underneath to collect the seeds, calibrate it all from out here so you don’t have to keep going in and out of the cab.

The seeds are going in the hopper and actually there’s another smaller hopper on the back. What would go in there? What would that be used for?

Yeah that’s correct. So in addition we’ve got a smaller hopper on the back, for instance if we were drilling OSR, we could fill this up with slug pellets, the slug pellets would sort of trickle out the bottom here on top of the row of seed so that’s another good addition. Again if you weren’t drilling, or putting on slug pellets, you could put some Berseem clover in there as a companion crop or something like that, so yeah just another good addition to the drill.

Very versatile, thank you James.

Tech Focus

We’re here in a beet field, you can see the land being worked down. This is coming sugar beet James.

Yeah that’s correct. Previously our sugar beet used to be more on the south end of the estate, predominantly that’s where a lot of our veg is. So we’ve now tried to remove the sugar beet out of the veg rotation, bring it up to the north end of the estate, on to the more heavier bodied soils up here.

So rotation here would be sugar beet?

Yeah sugar beet, spring barley, OSR, and then back around to wheat and then sugar beet following that again.

It’s an interesting decision to make to move across, it’s the first year you’ll try it this year I guess and see how things go.

Yeah that’s correct. So yeah this is our first year of putting sugar beet up here. Yeah, logic behind it is as I sort of said before, getting the sugar beet out of the other root crops on the estate where we grow carrots, potatoes and parsnips. We should reduce some herbicide costs because we’re not taking out the volunteer potatoes, so yeah there was a bit of thinking behind it.

We’re here in April, when would you normally have drilled and how does it differ to that?

Definitely we would have liked to have all of our sugar beet in the ground now, but yes, obviously as a result of that we’re going to be looking at a lot of kinder herbicides to get the beet up and away first. Yeah like I said the first herbicides will have to be some sort of kind ones to get the plant up and away before we can hit it later on.

It’s going to be quite a unique year this year with the late start to the season. Looking at your herbicide strategy, are there any particular changes you think you might make this year or a particular focus in light of a later drilling season?

Yeah as I sort of said before, touched on before, with it being the later season, the early herbicides are going to have to be of the kinder variety, like the Betanal maxxPro just to get the beet up and away before we start hitting it harder later on.

And how many sprays typically do you think you’d use in your beet herbicide programmes in this part of the farm?

Previously we’ve used sort of four, but yeah as I sort of said, we’ve never had beet up here before but I’d imagine we’re going to be along similar lines to that again.

Pretty typical for the range of number of herbicides you’d be using.

And if it’s the first year you say you’ve had beet on here, do you have any idea of what your yield aspirations might be for this field?

I’d like to think, last year we averaged 85t over the whole farm, so yeah I’d like to think we’ll be able to keep it around that mark.

And even with the later drilling season do you think you can still catch up on those last weeks?

Who knows, it’s all going to depend on the rest of the growing season isn’t it?

There’s a long way to go and decent weather over the summer.

Yeah, absolutely.

So we’ll see what happens with the crop.

Absolutely, yeah.

Looking forward a bit further into the cropping season, and fungicide usage, what’s the farm’s fungicide strategy?

First, a couple of fungicides will just be Escolta. On the later lifted beet last year, we used a third fungicide just on the later lifted stuff, was just a straight epoxy. But yeah we’ll definitely be looking towards using three I think, especially with the increased pressures of cercospora and things like that.

It’s interesting, there has been a general move over the years to more fungicide applications.

Yeah, when you mentioned that some get three sprays, some get two sprays, what sort of lift date is the cut-off that you’re using for switching from two to three?

Anything sort of after Christmas really, or just before Christmas to after Christmas is what would get the three fungicide programme.

Is that sort of about a third of the crop, or what portion are you late lifting vs. early lifting?

Probably be a quarter of the crop left after Christmas.

Yeah I’d say that’s the one that gets really looked after for the disease control.

And then when you’ve got your beet lifted, is it clamped or does it go straight into the factory? How are you coordinating your lifting haulage?

Previous places around the farm were very limited with concrete pads around the estate, up here again, with only sort of one access road, we’ll be looking more to use a Maus up here over sort of hedges and that kind of thing around the track. 

I can image a Maus would do well with the long way driving up here to get to the field.

Yeah, yeah.

And then thinking even further into the future, there’s obviously been a lot of noise around the neonics and the threat to neonicotinoid seed treatments. How do you see the future of growing sugar beet without, potentially without neonicotinoid seed treatments?

Yeah that’s definitely going to be a challenge. Especially obviously the Virus Yellows, obviously nothing else to control them, so yeah that is going to be challenging times.

And there’s a lot of unknown for everyone in that environment and there’s a lot of work to find out if there’s anything to mitigate some of the loss of those treatments and mitigate some of the damage that could be there from threats like aphids where there’s no means for control.

Yep I suppose key’s going to be to get the crop established quicklyand up and away.

Get it as big as possible as soon as possible.

Yeah, basically, yeah.

Good, thank you James.

Hot topic

So we’re back on the Southern end of the estate now where we’ve got some OSR which James has used his new precision drill to establish. I also want to ask him what his biggest challenge is on the farm with regards to improving organic matter and soil structure.

So James we’ve mentioned plenty of challenges facing the farm. What would you say is the one biggest challenge, your one biggest priority currently?

Biggest priority here would be maintaining soil structures, with a fair bit of veg in the rotation, with destoners and irrigation going on, the soils do take a big hammering. So one thing we’re doing here to keep on top of that, is local muck, or straw for muck deals with local pig farmers. So yeah apply any sort of farm yard manure whenever available. Other options are cover crops as well. So in the past we’ve put in some oats and vetch just as sort of green manure to get back into the soil so yeah they’re the biggest challenges I think we have.

How successful have cover crops been for you because I understand there’s a fair bit of trial and error involved?

Yeah that’s right. The biggest thing I suppose is quantifying how much sort of organic manure you’re actually putting back into the soil. So yeah, we’ve tried strip tilling some sugar beet into the cover crop before, didn’t have huge success with that but I think that’s down to the cultivations that we did, so yeah we had a strip till working in front of the drill, but there wasn’t a lot of consolidation behind it and I think we found our drill just put the seed in uneven depths behind the leg and establishment wasn’t great from that. But they’re all things that we learn from and try a different approach next time.

Absolutely, and as far as establishing a cover crop is concerned, do you sort of go with that philosophy that you’re almost treating it like a commercial crop so you’re looking at drilling date, seed bed, maybe applying a bit of nitrogen to cover crops, that sort of thing.

Not really, we will spread some muck before it if we can, if there’s time and opportunity, again to just try to build up the organic matter, but yeah it will just be a cheap, quick establishment either on the back of the top down and broadcast on or if there is a sort of availability from the drill and it’s not under too much pressure from any other crop, we can use the Vaderstad as well but yeah there’s no set rules involved in when we establish it.

Yep it’s just having that flexibility isn’t it and willingness to try things.

Yeah, good.

So thanks for watching this episode of CropFocus TV. I don’t know about you Ed but I found it really fascinating to learn all about James’ new precision drill.

Yeah, we’ve had a great time at South Pickenham Estates and if you’ve got any questions or want to get in touch, please get a hold of us on Twitter at @Bayer4CropsUK, otherwise we’ll see you on another episode of CropFocus TV.

We hope you enjoy the second edition of CropFocusTV. We certainly had an interesting day with James Brown. Watch out for the next edition coming your way – subscribe to our channel on YouTube for all our latest video content.

If you have any questions, please contact your local CTM or Tweet @Bayer4CropsUK.

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