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Crop Advice & Expertise

Life as a Farmer: Q&A with David Butler - Crop Focus TV: Episode 7

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Julian: So here we are in Wiltshire.

Mike: Yeah we're at David Butler's farm today. I'm really looking forward to seeing David. He's obviously very good on Twitter, we see him in Farmers Weekly so really interesting to see his farm today.

Julian: And what a location. Here we are in a particularly beautiful part of Wiltshire. David tell me a bit about the farm.

David: Well Julian it's good to welcome you back to the farm, it's good to see you. And also we've had a bit of rain. So we're very happy as farmers today to have had some rain back on our crops. Where you're looking down here is in to Pewsey Vale and we're lucky to farm in roughly the middle of Pewsey Vale which is an area of outstanding natural beauty.

So I am a farmer and we're a family farm. And there's four partners in our farming business here at Wootton Rivers. And so I farmed here myself since I left university and college. So about 20 years ago now and we're a mixed farm here. So we've got crops and livestock. We've got the kind of crops you probably expect us to be growing. So we've got wheat, barley, oilseed rape, oats and beans, winter beans. We have a 300 cow dairy and altogether with the young stock and some of the beef animals that we have which are on this down and where we're stood we got about 600 head of cattle. So I like to think of us as a traditional mixed farm. And I feel that works very well for where we farm here.

Our soil type is one which we're quite proud of, it's called greensand. It's quite a light, light soil as the name suggests it's quite hungry but has the ability to produce good crops and it's pretty easy to work. But we have to kind of manage it sympathetically and carefully because we all as farmers try to look after our soil. And by being a mixed farm that helps in many ways to help us keep the soil in good shape and good health.

Mike: So David we're in one of your meadows at the moment, how do you manage this?

David: Well the soil under here is actually quite poor under this particular bit of ground so it's quite flinty and traditionally it was once upon a time part of our arable area but about 10 years ago we put it down to grass and it's now badged as permanent pasture. As part of our environmental schemes, we actually manage it without putting any inputs on it. So it has no fertiliser and it has no herbicides or any sprays applied. The good thing about that is it does make it a little bit more biodiverse so obviously with the lower fertility levels some of the other herbs and flowers will come through. So there's cowslips out here and there's quite a lot of wildflowers as well which you can find which is really good. The downside is then productivity wise it's a lot less. So we will make one cut of hay on this. It's quite a low yielding hay, Sward, and we can use that to feed the cattle in the winter and then we can graze it for the back end of the summer with some beef animals. But the yield on this in terms of output of grass will probably be somewhere around 10 percent of what we get on some of our rye-grass leys that we have in the valley.

Mike: Should we go and have a look at those rye-grass leys?

David: I'd love to show you. So we're down now back on the greensand in the valley. This last year was a field of wheat and in the autumn we planted it back down to Italian rye-grass and we were actually concerned last year after the drought that we might be short of forage stocks. So this was put in as an extra field of grass and surprising perhaps, this has actually already had a cut of silage done on this although only about halfway through May we've already done quite a healthy big cut of silage a few weeks ago and it's already growing away well for a second cut. So we were really pleased with that and we do get some good high yields off fields like this.

Mike: So David we're in a fantastic looking crop of oilseed rape here. What have you done to manage this?

David: Well Mike I am pleased with this field, if not for any other reason than it is right beside the road. So you always want the fields that are very visible from the road to come well. Our oilseed rape has been a mixed bag this year and this is one of the fields that has done better. I think there's three reasons I can identify why this crop has worked. Number one is it's followed after winter barley because rotations are always important and by following winter barley we can get a nice good stale seedbed pretty quickly after harvest and then also roll that in to retain the moisture which is very important this year.

Number two before we put crops in we always try and put on a good quantity of farmyard manure onto the stubbles before we actually prepare the seedbed. That keeps the fertility high, helps the crops to get up and away. And thirdly there's no doubt last season there was an element of luck and judgment and we drilled a little bit earlier than other people did and we just caught some showers just as the crop was trying to come through and it got it away so there was some luck in whether we caught those showers or not.

So all in all, yes we are pretty pleased with this field, we hope it yields like it looks because you never know with oilseed rape but I've got some other fields that really are quite badly damaged with Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle and although they've made attempts at flowering, the stems are so damaged and brittle that the crops are actually folding over and you can see where they're just kind of crumbling away. So going forwards we're not sure how much rape we're going to grow in future and what we're going to swap with, I guess beans may be a potential substitute, but we're gonna have to take each year as it comes and I think our rape acreage unfortunately is going to continue to go down rather than up which is a shame because it has been a good break crop with some really good features.

Mike: So David we always like to feature a piece of kit. What have we got here?

David: I thought I'd try and do something a bit different perhaps to what you usually see. We for a long time have run a Horsch Pronto drill, it's going to be one the key machines on our farm. This obviously isn't a drill we're looking at now. This is the cultivator that's also made by Horsch called the Joker, this is a three metre Joker. We've had this on the farm now for over four seasons and I would like to nominate it as my and I think with my team's support, our favourite piece of kit for a number of reasons. Firstly, very high build quality so it's very strong. It weighs just about 3.3 tonnes. So it's a good strong frame on it. It's a very simple machine there's absolutely no hydraulics on it. So the adjustments are all mechanical so there's very little that can go wrong. But it's also a very flexible machine because you can alter the depth on the front on these legs here between 6 to 24 inches. So you've got a hell of a range of depth. You can also take off or put on the wings to change the amount of mixing it does so depending, for example, on concerns on black-grass you can do a more minimal disturbance approach or you can mix away some of the surface material more. Theoretically, you can take all the front section off or run it just as a set of discs. So we always felt it's a very well designed machine, well put together and importantly as well, the running costs are relatively low compared to what we were doing before with a shakerator. So we estimate that fuel and wearing parts wise this machine will cost us about 10 pounds an acre less than what we were doing before.

Julian: So what does the future of the farm look like then David?

David: I wish I had a crystal ball to be quite clear exactly which way we're going. And every single farm is going to think about how they move forward individually in a different way. For me and for our farming business, I think de-risking is an important part of what we need to do. We know we're not going to have the support system that we've had for the last 20 years in my farming career in the next 20. There is always an element of risk to producing arable crops. The weather can turn round and throw all your plans out the window. A big hope is that the wonderful new technologies that we've got round the corner will be made available so we can best adopt those as they are in other parts of the world.

Julian: Okay. Thank you. Thank you very much.

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