We started the day by shepherding; driving up onto the fell to check on the stock. A large area of the estate is moorland. This area is used for raising beef cattle and for grazing sheep. One cow had a large wart on her udder, which James sprayed to reduce the chance of infection. She jumped at the spray and the wart fell off, it was as big and as dense as a cricket ball! The lambs are sprayed with the same number as their mother so the shepherd can quickly tell if the lambs have been abandoned.
Recently, the estate bought the entitlements to the fell land and are now working, under the guidance of Natural England, to control the bracken and restore the heather moorland. Grazing is part of this, but the bracken is also controlled by contractors.
A water pipe was leaking on the moor and we had to dig it up to repair the leak. This made me realise the huge extent of water infrastructure required to water all the animals and the costs associated with it, even before any payment for water. Here, the livestock are watered from borehole water which has the dual advantage of being free but keeping livestock away from streams and ponds.
Some of the cattle were drinking from two natural ponds in a woodland area. We went to have a look at the extent of poaching. There was evidence of cattle having been there but the banks had ben reinforced with wood chippings and the damage was minimal. The natural depressions around the ponds had the capacity to hold a lot of rain water, a couple of leaky dams in the woodland could have made these effective Natural Flood Management features.
Further downstream, a retention pond has been constructed in one of the fields as part of the “Mitigation options for Phosphorus and Sediment” scheme, funded by DEFRA with Lancaster University, ADAS consultancy, the University of Reading and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. A lot of runoff is coming down off the A6 and through neighbours field where it is picking up sediment so the two stage pond acts as a sediment trap and also strips out nutrients. James was quite positive about it but is perhaps quite unique in his willingness to give up such a large area. The pond is part of a large scientific trial and I will be interested in the results about the practicalities of building and maintaining these features and whether smaller ponds can be equally as effective (http://mops2.diffusepollution.info).
In the afternoon I joined Andrew the tractor man for potato spraying. There are two large fields of potatoes under a rental agreement with a potato producer. The equipment needed to planting and harvesting potatoes is very specific so this is done by a specialised firm that rent fields from lots of different landowners. As part of the agreement, the potatoes are sprayed by the landowner.
The programme of fertiliser and insecticide application will be determined by the advice given by Steven the agronomist, after regular crop walks. In general, the potatoes are sprayed with insecticide once per week, which is what we were doing today. Insecticides can only be sprayed on very still days due to the damage it can cause to headlands, hedgerows and verges if it is blown out of the field.
A precision farming system is used for spraying which has great environmental and economic benefits but is a very costly piece of kit. A GPS system within the tractor tracks the location during spraying. Because most of the damage to soil is done in the first pass it is important to keep the tractor on the same tracks each time. The computer knows the extent of the boom and colours in the areas that have already been sprayed; if you are retracing steps or overlapping with an area that has already been sprayed then the overlapping nozzles will switch off so that the area isn’t getting a double spray. Obviously this is more economical as pesticide is not being wasted but also better for the environment as it is the extra that will not be absorbed and will be lost into the wider environment. For fertiliser the differences in requirements within a field, based on soil testing, can be programmed in so that each area of the field is sprayed with the correct proportions of phosphate and potash. Too much of a nutrient can actually inhibit uptake or growth of other essential nutrients. It was very satisfying to watch the field get coloured in green on the computer screen as we passed over each new area!
I’ve had a fantastic few days on the farm and am very grateful to James Turner and all the staff at Brackenburgh for taking the time to give me an insight into farming. I have a much better appreciation of how farming operations work and the number of factors farmers have to take into account to manage their business effectively.