Recently TMAF Chair Richard Wilbourn and Farm Manager David Jones were guests of the Newbury and District Agricultural Society to judge their crop competitions. They enjoyed the chance to look at the crops and, as David reports back, noticed several significant differences between farming in the West compared to the East.
“The Newbury show is a 2-day event in September. Like many county shows, they have been finding their way through the issues of the last few years. When suggested that the showground would make a good development site, a strong voice said the show must go on.
It’s still show business
The competition programme is very strong including best-farmed farm, best sheep flock, best bag of wheat or barley and best bale of hay. When we were asked to be a crop judge, I said I hope we don’t have to judge OSR as it all looks the same in June.
We were asked to judge 9 fields of OSR, broadly in a 15-mile radius of Newbury. We were ably driven by Paul, an ex-Diss resident and seed trader. Paul recently retired and moved to part of the family farm in Berkshire. As you would expect, we were shown the best gateway of the best field on the farm.
When East meets West
Having just arrived from Norfolk, the landscape on the Berkshire down was breathtaking with large fields and little traffic on minor roads. Most farms had fields that had failed. When we asked what their flea beetle control strategy was, some had a detailed plan others said they relied on luck.
Most crops were drilled on 1st September, the day it rained. Most used home saved seed to reduce cost in case of failure. One crop was supporting a respectable number of pods despite being badly infected by stem weevil. We believe that over the years insecticides have controlled the stem weevils by default. Most stems were swollen near the ground. When dissected, the stem was rotten.
Doing the same but differently
Out of 9 good crops, 5 stood out with little to choose from. What we noticed was that most crops were direct drilled with, at the most, a shallow 3 in cultivation. It was also revealed that most other crops were also direct drilled. We would not find this common in East Anglia.
Another observation is that the chalk downs are free draining, yet the chalk can hold on to water through the summer. There are no land drains and few ditches. The occasional water courses would be spring-fed streams. In 2023 there is significant blackgrass and ryegrass in East Anglian crops. But as we drove west, past Milton Keynes, the problem diminished. We believe this is a measure of summer rainfall in 2022.
Bean there, don’t do that
On the second day, we were driven by Joe, a Savills trainee, in the back of a VW polo. We looked at 6 fields of beans. We were very impressed and envious of the clean tall bean crops with excellent weed control.
We began to realise that, although visually impressive, they were unlikely to make a positive margin for the farm. However, they would be a very useful part of a crop rotation.
Over dinner that night we learnt that most wheat and barley went to Southampton docks. There are few chickens or pigs locally. Our thoughts turned to East Anglia where there are many additional cropping options e.g. vining peas, sugar beet, and malting barley. Although these crops can bring challenges, we are grateful to people over the years that have developed the infrastructure to enable us to grow them.
We thank the Newbury and District Agricultural Society for their hospitality, all the interesting people we met and the opportunity to poke around other peoples’ farms.”