Loran Steinlage, West Union, IA -20th of June 2015

imageToday I have spent the day and evening with Loran Steinlage of West Union, North East Iowa. Loran is a corn farmer, who also grows soya beans and this year some wheat. Plus a few other  diversifications on the go.

When I first arrived the weather was rubbish so we had a tour around the machinery shed. Loran is one of those people who won’t spend money on new machinery unless he can’t make it himself and he seems to be able to make most things. Even things he does buy in seem to get chopped up and re welded how he wants.

His corn and beans are strip till and below is a picture of his strip till rig. He is also CTF.

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The interesting thing for me on both his strip till rig and drill were the discs

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These discs are designed by a local company and a supposed to cut residue better. This drill has cost Loran less than $10,000 where as a new John Deere the same size would be nearly $100,000.

Also in the back of his shed was another one of his creations a rock roller. He has large rocks which he doesn’t want entering the combine and so rolls the ground

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The other interesting thing I had never seen was they receive seed in a plastic box which sits on a platform on the planter and seed is fed out the bottom. No bags needed.

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After lunch Loran gave me the grand tour of Iowa. We drove for about 100 miles. Our main destination was Norman Bourlag’s home place. Norman Bourlag’s was the father of modern wheat and is credited with reducing hunger and saving millions of lives through his wheat breeding. Loran had organised a personal tour around the site

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The irony is that Bourlag was bought up in Iowa that now grows virtually no wheat, it is dominated by corn. One of the only couple of fields of wheat in the area was Loran’s

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He is growing it for a few reasons but it is an experiment. The grand tour continued and we saw this set up

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This is the feed mill area for a huge hog operation. Things are large scale in Iowa.

After the grand tour the weather had improved and so we got out into the field to kick some clods. Loran last year experimented with inter seeding cover crops into corn. He found he has had a yield bump of about 15 bushels per acre in the following crop and the interseeded area has the highest soil health scores when tested. The day before Loran had interseeded some radish into the corn and it had already germinated .

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There was also clover left from the previous year in corn on corn

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Another trial he was doing was planting corn and soya beans together

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Apparently in trials the corn with the Soyabean with no added N has out yielded corn alone with full fertilisation.

He was also trialling out a new cover crop, can you guess what it is?

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Loran seemed to be enjoying himself playing around and trialling different things and seemed to be a lone voice in the area for these practices. I look forward to see what else he gets up to in the future. Good luck Loran and thanks to you and your wife for your hospitality

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Dawn Equipment, Sycamore, Illinois – 17th June 2015

This afternoon I actually had no appointments booked but knew that Dawn equipment were close by so I stopped for lunch and just popped into their factory on the off chance. Dawn equipment are a company that construct various add ons to planters including row cleaners and the cover crop rollers I saw at Lucas’s. Their latest launch is Dawn Biologic and their corn  Interseeder. I had seen at Steve Groff’s the crops that had been interseeded but not the machine. Luckily they were just getting one ready for demo as I got there

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This has not been released yet but they are sending some out on demo for development. The idea is to plant cover crops between the rows of corn so the cover is established early and is ready to go when harvest happens. This is particularly useful in more northern areas where there is little chance for establishment after harvest. This operation is carried out when the corn is knee high.

The machine is very simple and light on purpose. It is mounted on the three point linkage of a tractor

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The down pressure is run on air and their is wheels in the front for contour following. The box holds about 6 bushels of seed.

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It is a double disc opener. There is no depth wheel so that is done on the closing wheel. That is why there is a groove in the wheel so their is not too much pressure over the seed. They are going to be selling the units separately so farmers can make their own tool bar. The idea is for it to be affordable and adaptable. The units can be run at different depths and widths and can go as deep as three inches. There is the option to add liquid fert and they think there will be tool bars upto 12-16 units per tool bar. So about 50 feet wide at the most. A great concept and it was good to see one in the flesh. They also mentioned that thought this kind of thing could become mandatory due to regulation.

Russel Higgins, Northern Ilinois Agronomy Research Centre – 17th June 2015

So when I finished my last post I was waiting for my flight to Philidelphia. I had a 50 minute window at Philidelphia to change terminals and connect to my Chicago flight. The Harrisburg plane was there but there was no crew, they were on another plane! So my window kept going down and I was starting to get worried. Once the plane got to Philadelphia I had a long run between flights, I wanted some exercise to run off all the American food but didn’t need the stress too. Once I reached Chicago, I picked up my car and went to my motel. Not the nicest place, not sure the no smoking signs had been adhered too! Also when I woke up there was a dead cockroach on my floor. Lesson learnt, don’t go for the cheapest option!

This morning my first meeting was with Russel Higgins in Shabbona about an hour from Chicago

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Chicago has been very wet recently and this morning was no different as it poured down while I travelled there.there is lots of water lying in low places in fields

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I found Russel by looking up intercropping on the Internet as they have been intercropping pumpkins with corn. What they do is plant the pumpkins which attracts the Western Root Beetle which is a major pest, so they have a good population to then do trials on.

Also at the centre they do herbicide trials where they actually plant the weeds as seen in rows below

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They do trials for chemical companies but they are not allowed to tell farmers the results!

We chatted about water issues in the UK and the US and they are facing major challenges here. The water that comes off these fields end up in the Mississippi and then the Gulf of Mexico, which has the dead zone due to nitrates. At the moment Des Moines city are taking farmer run drainage boards to court over nitrate pollution and the costs they incur removing them. If they are successful this could have major implications nationwide. This will mean that authorities could have control over what farmers apply and how they apply it and also impose restrictions.

At the moment cover crops and no till are not widely practiced in the area. In the spring the soils ( which are fantastic) are damp and cold so no till seems to struggle. Also in the last few years their harvest has been late and so their has been little chance to get covers established. This means they have struggled in their trials to show a yield benefit. Also the soils are very forgiving and productive and farmers are struggling to see the need to change. Russel thinks this change will come eventually but through regulation.

Also technically they can plant crops right to the top of ditch banks

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Though many waterway banks do have conservation ground next to them which they get paid for.

Russel is an Extension Agent and these agencies are coming under pressure from govt as they need to justify their funding. They are like the old ADAS but now farmers can get info from many other places and the Internet, they really have to prove their value.

It was a really good morning chatting to Russel and getting an insight into the challenges of farming in       Illinois. Their problems are very similar to ours. Farmers rents have gone up as the commodity prices rose but have not gone down as they have dropped, they have a massive regulatory pressure coming in the future. The one thing we don’t have is RR Palmer Amaranth, this weed is now in Illinois and seems to be the one that everybody fears. There are also about another seven RR weeds in the state.

Thank you very much to Russel. It was great to get an insiders view of local agriculture.

Simon Chiles No Till Day – 3rd June 2015

Simon Chiles is as farmer who farms on the Kent/Surrey border. He has been no-till cropping for I think 15 years and knows more about the John Deere 750a drill than anyone else in the UK, a lot more than John Deere do! It was Simon who was kind enough to show me around his farm about five years ago and educate me how to use the drill successfully, without his help I would have made a lot more mistakes than I have.

Simon decided he would open his farm for the day and show people around and tell us what he is up to. You will see below that Simon is not afraid for try something new and different!

The first field we went to was a seed crop of Winter Triticale that was drilled this spring. Triticale is a crop I am interested in growing. It needs half the Nitrogen that wheat does and rarely needs a fungicide but yields the same. The problem is the market is difficult to find. That will have to change.Half this field had also had been treated with Mychorriza fungi from Plantworks to see if there is any benefit.

The second field was a seed crop of vetch which is growing with mustard. The idea of the mustard is to act as a climbing frame for the vetches so they are off the ground at harvest.

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The field next door is a field of Soya. It had a high weed population but there are plenty of chemicals to take out the weeds. There is a population of 60 seed per meter square which is ideal. The idea is for the UK to grow some home grown soya to replace imported products:

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Then we were driven to a seed crop of Phacelia which is being grown for T Denne and Son. The crop had been hit by a late frost but hopefully with some June sunshine will pick up

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Then we were driven to a field of where Simon was growing a four way mix of different group 4 wheat. The idea is to improve disease resistance and quality by mixing varieties and get genetic diversity:

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The last crop we saw was a field of seed Lupins. These looked very well and I am tempted to grow some myself. A bit research needed first:

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As you can see Simon does not do things conventionally and my hat goes off to him for trying all these different ideas. I am always keen to try something different but Simon seems to take it to another level. It was a great day and as ever good to chat to other like minded farmers, I think about 120.

After Simons, myself and Josef Appell a Swedish No Till farmer went back to my farm via Andy Barr’s machinery shed to have a look around my farm. The biggest surprise for me was when we dug a hole in my OSR field that was companion cropped we found all this soil life

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I had a great evening chatting to Josef about farming and look forward to visiting Sweden next year.

My next post will be in just over a weeks time when I leave for North America for a month. A lot to blog about hopefully!

8th January 2015, Meeting my sponsors HGCA

Today I spent the day at Stoneleigh in AHDB-HGCA’s fancy new headquarters. The idea of the day was for me to get to know the HGCA team and for them to get to know me. I spent the morning with R@KT team chatting about myself! It was good to find out too that the leader of the R@KT team Dr Susannah Bolton used to study intercropping and the HGCA want to research companion cropping and intercropping. So hopefully my study will help with these aims.

After lunch I was interviewed by Eleanor Perkins on video which will hopefully be on the HGCA website soon (www.HGCA.com). Then I was shown around the building by Dr Vicky Foster. Overall all an interesting day with good contacts made and hopefully the start of a productive working relationship.

Thanks again to HGCA for sponsoring my Nuffield Scholarship

16/12/2014, First Official Visit – Mark Hemmant of Agrovista

My official first trip of my Nuffield scholarship involved grappling with the motorway system at 5.30am and it was shut! So country route it was for the last part of my journey. My destination was Farmcare in Leicestershire to see the Agrovista Companion cropping trials with Mark Hemmant, Technical Manager, as my host. In their trials Agrovista are experimenting with different establishment techniques, seeding rates and seeding mixtures with interesting results.

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Mark prefers using Berseem clover as a companion due to its deep rooting properties where is I a few years ago struggled to get Berseem clover established. They have reduced seeding rates down to as low as 5 kg per hectare and still seen an advantage from companion cropping. When seeding rates are down to 5kg/ha the seed is applied in the  OSR row at drilling compared to higher rates of companion seeds being broadcast.In fact they have found that there are more advantages to having seeding rates low compared to high due to the higher seedrates possibly competing with the Oilseed Rape.They have found better establishment from companion cropping, this they think it’s due to less slug problems. Also they have seen OSR rootneck increase in size in companion cropping and last year seen a yield advantage of up to half a ton hectare in companion cropping compared to without. They were also comparing establishment techniques of companion cropping and they found that the best established achieved from broadcasting was with spreading of the companion seed before drilling and tickling the seed in with an adaption on the drill.

After visiting Farmcare we went for lunch. We started at MacDonald’s for adrink  and then went to a local pub for big plate of pie and veg! If this is how my lunchtimes are going to be on my Nuffield visits then I may need to run another marathon!

After lunch we visited Agrovista’s cover crop and blackgrass trial. At this site agrovista trialling the use of cover crops with species of vetch and black oats to control blackgrass by drilling a little bit later to allow one flush blackgrass before drilling and then drilling the oats at low seed rates which allows the blackgrass to come through with the cover crop.

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The idea is that you get blackgrass growing with the cover crop and this helps lower the black grass seed bank. They have had success and have achieved lower blackgrass emergence in the following spring cereal compared to multiple overwinter stale seedbeds. The interesting plot for me was an early drilled mix with Phacelia. This had virtually no blackgrass growing in the bottom. It will be interesting to see which plots are cleanest in the spring crop.

It was interesting first official visit and many thanks to Mark for taking the day to show me around.

25th November 2014, National Soil Symposium

This was a last minute decision to go to the National Soil symposium:

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The Organic sector are having to find novel methods of controlling weeds, pests and diseases as they can not use many pesticides. I hoped being at a conference with a few hundred farmers and researchers I might get some ideas and meet people involved in companion cropping. I was not disappointed. I met Dr Henry Creissen of the Organic Research Centre (www.organicresearchcentre.com) and hope to visit to Wakelyns later this year to see the work they are doing. He also told me about the OSCAR project which is a worldwide research project (@THEOSCARProject). This will hopefully lead to many useful contacts around the world.

I also met John Falconbridge of Western Seeds (www.westernseeds.com). Western Seeds market combi-crops which are intercrops of cereals and legumes. Exactly what I am looking to study, so hopefully John and I can continue our long chat another day.

Overall it was well worth spending four hours there and back in the car to get to this conference and I look forward to following up the contacts I made.

19th-21st November 2014, Nuffield 2014 Conference

After a long journey (5 minutes!) I reached the Ashford International Hotel with Philippa and Charlie. Yes we bought a six week old baby to the pre-conference briefing, maybe a first! He was very well behaved and so was Philippa. It was the first time I met the rabble below:

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The group of Nuffield Scholars 2015 will be a group of people I get to know very well over the next couple of years and hopefully become life long friends. After the briefing day we went to the bar to get to know each other better over a few beers.

The next couple of days was spent listening to all the 2013 scholars presentation, with my friend Tom Sewell going last (Tom inspired me to do a Nuffield and as a thank you I have hired him as my unofficial mentor, I just haven’t told him yet!). It bought home the enormity of the challenges and tasks ahead but also great excitement of the adventures to be had. We were also presented with our awards, handed to us by The Duke of Gloucester. I was on stage with Jonathon Tipples the Chairman of the HGCA, my sponsor.