Ragwort raising its head in paddocks and roadsides

Gwyn Jones' Farm Diary
Gwyn Jones' Farm Diary

After a hot and dry June and July with a few local storms in the mix, things are a little unsettled as we start August. Harvest is in full swing up and down the country, with good reports on yield and quality of cereals. With 20% of the harvest completed by the end of July, eastern counties are the first to start cutting winter wheat having finished oil-seed rape and winter barley.

I was up in Wales for a few days last week and cereal crops looked good in Shropshire, also some very good crops of maize standing tall along the roadside. Plenty of very good quality straw in the fields and on the roads, as in livestock areas all the straw is baled and sold.

Some fields are cultivated ready for planting and attention will soon be on best varieties, worries about the dwindling number of chemicals available to control weeds and pests and reports that there are slugs everywhere!

Many arable farmers are now focusing on how they are going to manage oil seed rape planting this autumn, now that ‘neonicotinoids’ are banned. There is a great deal of disagreement over the ban, with Defra arguing that there is lack of evidence showing neonicotinoids to be harmful to bees and other pollinators at the levels used in crops. Europe implemented the ‘precautionary principle’ which introduced the ban, but farmers back Defra’s stance, insisting that the negative impact of removing the pesticides had to be taken into account.

Far less pollen rich crops such as oil seed rape which is great for bees could be grown in the future if farmers fail to protect it from flea beetle this autumn. It is likely that in order to control this pest without neonicotinoid seed-dressing, farmers could be spraying every seven days for several weeks protecting the young plant. Independent experts have continually advised government on the safety of neonicotinoid pesticides, hence Defra’s stance against Europe on this issue.

Cereal prices have dropped significantly over the past few weeks as yields at harvest across Europe and estimates of tonnage elsewhere in the world takes its toll. Whilst this is not good news for cereal farmers, poultry and pig farmers, beef and dairy farmers watching as their own prices drop; can at least see lower production costs ahead as feed prices for this winter will be considerably lower. Beef cattle in particular have dropped in price significantly of late, with many farmers threatening to cut back on beef numbers next year.

Both cereals and proteins are at very low prices and it seems that good yields and quality across producing countries is unlikely to change things. Weather predictions across soya producing countries are favourable, but political and economic trouble in Argentina could pause a problem if farmers there use their soya as a hedge against currency, shortening the market. A strong pound influences prices of course, but it fell last week on the back of an industry report showing signs of slowing UK manufacturing output.

Tillington is very dry again following another sunny week which took the moisture left by rains 10 days ago. We are pulling any ragwort as we move fences daily for the dairy heifers, now that it reveals itself with bright yellow flowers. There isn’t much after our control programme in the spring, but under fences and in hedgerows it appears suddenly despite our efforts. The NFU have been putting out notices and messages reminding us all of our duties and legal obligation to deal with this weed, but the roadsides and in particular horse paddocks are full of ragwort everywhere and no one takes any notice.

The pasture is deteriorating now as the dry weather takes its toll, but I expect that a flush will follow later in the year. Fortunately, young animals seem to need very little to keep them going when the sun shines, and of course every mouthful is high in dry matter which has more value than one thinks. We are still applying a little fertilizer in order to take advantage of any rain around, and to keep things going. Fly control is a big issue this year and we are having to apply fly dressing more often than usual in order to keep them off the cattle.

Fracking in the immediate area of Kirdford seems to have been defeated by a well organised local campaign, but a huge row has erupted around retired scientist David Smythe who successfully persuaded West Sussex County Council to reject an application to drill. Not only has the Geological Society written to David Smythe to demand that he stops claiming to be a Chartered geologist, but the University of Glasgow (where he used to work) has also asked him not to suggest that academics there share his views.

Whilst campaigners against fracking describe him as a ‘world class star of geological research’, Paul Younger professor of energy engineering at the University of Glasgow says Mr Smythe is not qualified to give expert advice on fracking, and that he has not published any papers on the subject for peer review; adding that his ‘pseudo-scientific scaremongering’ would never get past scientific scrutiny. This confusion and argument between academics clouds the complex issue of fracking even more, making it almost impossible for those who would like to make sensible and objective decisions based on fact.

Whilst both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats ‘reluctantly’ took power to save us from doom, and prescribed a lengthy course of austerity measures to correct government spending, I see that the Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott is going further even though the country is in a good financial state compared to most others following twenty years of continued growth. No more free visits to the doctor, no payments for being out of work unless 25 hours of community work a week and numerous job applications are completed making unemployment a full-time ‘job’. Other headline cuts are a reduction in public sector workers and higher tuition fees for students.

Given that Australian governments only have three year terms this is a big risk, but he has certainly been busy, and both his principal election promises of abolishing the carbon tax (introduced by Labour and hated by most Australians) and strengthening Australia’s borders have been done. The claim is that taking these measures now rather than waiting until the finances go wrong is sensible, and that they are good policies in any case. Other countries are certainly watching to see where he goes with all this, and when I visit Australia there seems to me to be an equal amount of robust support and absolute pure hatred for Abbott.