Crop changes at Hillfarm

by Sam Fairs, November 29, 2018

Over the last 50 years Hillfarm has changed its cropping dramatically. Here, we explain how we are responding to current market demands as well as changing climate and disease risks.

Any farmer will tell you, farming ain’t what it used to be. To succeed in agriculture today, you need to constantly adapt to the latest economic trends, as well as the effects of climate change and crop diseases. 

Tackling blackgrass 

At Hillfarm, we always prefer using cultural control rather than chemical. We take pride in working our land using our cultivation skills and the equipment we have invested in, rather than rely on herbicides. 

Blackgrass is an annual weed that is causing major problems for British farmers. It has become increasingly prevalent in autumn cereals and can reduce yields significantly. Blackgrass flowers in the summer, shedding its seed over 8 weeks. Each plant may produce up to 20 heads with each one containing around 100 seeds, and this is why populations can increase so rapidly. The majority of these seeds germinate in the autumn, at the same time as the crop. This has led to an overreliance on post-mergence herbicides to control growth, and now many populations of the weed are resistant to these herbicides.

In response to the current resistant blackgrass epidemic, we have dramatically changed our crop rotation across the farm. We now plant later in the hope the blackgrass can be controlled before our value crop is put under pressure for soil mineral and sunlight competition. This is contrary to the recent trend to drill early with the aim of achieving higher yields, as this can enable blackgrass to thrive. Blackgrass plants that grow in later drilled crops tend to be less competitive so we watch weather forecasts avidly to plan the best time to drill our cereals.     

Crop diversification 

This year we have planted, grown and harvested 10 different crops on the farm. This is a first for Hillfarm, but we hope this will now be our future. Inevitably, it has taken up a lot of time to research how to plant, grow, tend and harvest each variety, not to mention working out whether it is worthwhile financially to pay the bills! For Sam, who would rather be outside than at his desk, this has meant lots more office hours. We have also needed to invest considerable time in educating and training our wonderful team about the individual needs of each crop. However, we are optimistic that this will prove to be the right move for our farm. 

We are now growing wheat, barley, sugar beet, oilseed rape, parsley, borage, maize, spring barley, dried peas and winter beans! In previous years, we have only grown wheat, barley, oilseed rape and vining peas.

Dried peas are an interesting new crop for us. Demand has grown for dried peas in recent years, thanks to increased interest in healthy eating. Pea flour is rich in nutrients and high in protein and fibre. What’s more, it’s gluten-free, making it a fantastic cooking and baking option for coeliac sufferers or anyone on a low GI diet. Dried peas are also an excellent break crop. Just like vining peas, they fix nitrogen into our soil naturally. 

A busy spring ahead

Our move to spring cropping means a busy spring ahead for us at Hillfarm. But by spreading our financial risks and not growing too much of one crop, we hope to be rewarded at harvest time. By concentrating on our cultivating controls, rather than chemical, we can also honour our commitment to the incredible flora and fauna on our farm. 

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