Farming in the Second Half of the 20th Century
Towards the end of a cold August in 2008, the Brown family were harvesting wheat in Church Close, the field behind the grain stores at Home Farm. As well as wheat, they also grow oil seed rape, oats and tick beans for winter feed for animals.
In the field were William, aged 16, Sarah, aged 19, both of whom were driving tractors pulling trailer-loads of the harvested grain. When the trailer was full the grain was taken down to the shed to be stored. Harry aged 17 was taking the baled straw down to Sescut while George aged 20 was on the bale cart. John Henry, aged 14, had been there earlier taking photographs of the process. Richard was combining. A contract baler is brought in to bale the straw because they don’t use much, the farm being now almost entirely arable. Some straw is chopped and ploughed in while the rest is baled. About 1000 half ton bales are kept to make walls in the barns but the rest are sold to farmers who have livestock.
The tractor pulls a trailer alongside the combine-harvester, which spews the grain into the trailer. They aim to fill the back of the trailer first so they can see how full it is. With wheat they have a full trailer every 15 to 20 minutes but OSR is slower, taking 30-45 minutes because of the smaller yield.
The combine-harvester is French-made. (There is not much agricultural machinery made in England.) It is controlled by computer and is a fearsome machine. It has a tank which holds eight tonnes of grain before it needs to be transferred to the trailer. It drives itself, cutting a swathe 30 ft wide, with a camera sensing the edge of the wheat to be cut. The computer registers the area covered (in this instance 11 hectares), the crop yield, (average 12.5 tonnes per hectare), the moisture level (16.9%) and the tonnage (140 tons). This is all recorded on the computer memory stick in the machine as the grain is being harvested and the information is then transferred to the main computer in the office. The yield is colour coded on the print out, giving the number of tonnes per hectare, so it is easy to see which field or part of a field is producing most. The amount of fertiliser needed for the following year is then calculated.
The wheat being harvested was winter wheat of the variety Solstice, which was sown in autumn 2007. There is also spring wheat which is sown in February and harvested in September. Winter wheat is grown in Elsfield because in parts the soil is very wet and Spring wheat would not have sufficient time to germinate and grow well. Winter wheat is the highest yielding cereal crop in the UK and has the most acreage. Yields are typically eight to ten tonnes per hectare, so the field being harvested was a good one. The corn is short because in Spring a growth inhibitor is applied which stiffens and shortens the wheat, and this is also used on the OSR. (Straw for thatching is longer and is now specially grown for the purpose.)
The wheat varieties are graded 1, 2, 3 and 4, with 1 and 2 being suitable for milling and 3 and 4 for animal feed. The Browns grow four kinds of wheat: Solstice, Cordiale, Einstein and Humber. The first two are milling wheats which they harvest first because it is more valuable and the other two are for animal feed. Generally, the wheat for animal feed gives a higher yield than milling wheat but is poorer in quality, that is, it has a lower protein content.
The price for high quality wheat is ultimately determined by commercial bread and biscuit manufacturers. There are two main quality characteristics which are important to them which affect the way flour behaves when it is cooked. One is the amount of gluten in the wheat and the other is the activity level of an enzyme called alpha-amylase. For bread, strong extensible gluten is needed so the dough will rise without leaving holes in the baked bread. For biscuits a weak gluten is required. The enzyme alpha-amylase turns starch to sugar, which prevents proper dough characteristics developing, so it is important to have a low level of the enzyme in the wheat. This is measured by something called the Hagberg falling number (HFN). A high HFN means the flour is less degraded.
The moisture content is important. It has ideally to be 15%. This is monitored by the combine continuously and was over 16% when they started harvesting in the morning but had dropped to 15+% by midday.
The soil is tested during the year by agronomists who advise on how much and what kind of chemicals to apply. Fertiliser is very expensive, so it must be applied carefully. Sarah, who is studying agriculture at Newcastle University, tested each field for potassium and phosphorus a few months ago. Too much potassium inhibits the magnesium uptake by the crop.
The harvested crop is sold to corn merchants at Thame and Daventry. Wheat is fetching about £115 a tonne at the moment, with OSR fetching about £280. OSR is taken for crushing at Erith, on the Thames estuary, or Liverpool. The Browns themselves transport the grain on behalf of the corn merchants. They also take corn to Rank/Hovis in Southampton for export, wheat to Corby for the flour mills and beans are taken to Tilbury, again for export, or Enstone for local feed mills.
Black grass, an annual weed the seeds of which can contaminate a crop, has been a problem at Sescut this year because of the wet weather. It is hard to control and they have to plough the soil to get rid of it. In the past straw and stubble burning destroyed a significant proportion of the seeds but this is no longer an option. In lighter soil a cultivator is used immediately after harvesting over the chopped straw. The cultivator turns the surface over, a process which produces a false seed bed where the weeds germinate. The weeds are then weed-killed with a non-selective weed-killer, typically Roundup, and the soil is drilled and rolled. A pre-emergent selective weedkiller is then used which stays in the soil. This allows the wheat to grow.
Spraying of crops is carefully controlled. There must be a six metre buffer zone between crop and watercourse and low drift nozzles are used at all times. OSR is sprayed with Roundup before harvesting to dry it and make it easier to harvest and whereas in the 1990s OSR was used as a break crop so three or four crops of wheat could be grown on the same land in consecutive years, wheat and OSR are now grown in alternate years.
There is no shortage of wildlife. There were eight fallow deer in the field before they started harvesting and there were bare patches in the crop, caused by badgers. There are pheasants in the corn and buzzards and kites, which eat mice and voles, were hovering overhead when they started cutting the wheat. Sarah’s sharp eyes spotted a hare and a couple of hobbies swooped down for food while we were in the field.
Now, in 2009, the land is almost entirely given over to arable crops: wheat for milling and animal feed, beans for animal feed, and Oil Seed Rape.
Based in the barns belonging to Home Farm is a riding stable which uses a large part of Sandfield for grazing the horses in winter. In summer, when the land has dried out, they move further down the hill.
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