Professor Jacob Weiner, University of Copenhagen: 10th of June 2016

This was my last visit on my foreign part of my Nuffield travels. I have one more visit in the UK planned and then I need to knuckle down to write my report. Jacob had the honour of being my last foreign visit. Jacob is an American who has worked all around the world but has now settled in Denmark. He has done work on intercropping and companion planting. Recently he has been working in China ( more research money there). His colleagues in China have had great results with intercropping and got very large yield increases. They have poor Loess soils and this is why he thinks they get advantages through intercropping. Jacob not so sure in the West we will see the large yield increases but we will see many other advantages especially of lowering inputs and safeguarding the environment.

Recently Jacob has been working on the OSCAR project which is a European wide research project into cover cropping and intercropping: http://web3.wzw.tum.de/oscar/index.php?id=2

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Jacob was specifically looking at the use of Subterreanean Clover in cereals in the Mediterranean. Sub-clover is very interesting as it is low growing and seeds underground. Ideal as a companion. The problem is it is difficult to establish and needs water otherwise it competes too much with the main crop. Also we need new varieties which are suited better to the UK climate.

The other research Jacob has been doing is looking into seeding patterns and its effects on weeds. This work is the reason I contacted him as I saw a feature in “The Furrow” magazine. Jacob has been looking at inter row spacing and intra row spacing. Ideally the distances want to be 45mm for both. This means the need for more precise seeding technology and also a doubling of seed rates. He has had some great results. In the trials they planted their weed (WOSR) and did different seed rates and seeding patterns. The results can be seen below:

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He has got 72% weed control from both high seed rates and uniform seeding. The uniform seeding alone gave an 30% advantage in weed control.

The final idea we discussed was “evolutionary theory in agriculture “. Basically evolution is not necessarily the best thing for agriculture. In a field of wheat for example you don’t necessarily want the best yielding individual plants as they can disadvantage their neighbours, you want the plants that work best as a community. You want the best yield per hectare not yield per plant. This goes against most thinking in plant breeding and is not a popular idea with his peers. It also has repercussions for varietal mixtures and intercropping. The best varities for intercropping will not necessarily be the highest yielding, they need to be social plant. Also this theory applies to managing varietal mixtures. You do not want to leave them to evolve to selfish individuals. You want to add new genetics to stop the gene pool of the mixtures narrowing.

After seeing Jacob we went to the Inaugural lecture of a new professor here looking at biological time machines

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The proffesor was working on climate change. The was trying to look into the future effects of changing temperatures, rainfall and CO2 through outdoor experiments to try to predict the ecosystem effects of climate change into the future and the effects on plant communities. He was saying it is hard to work with a multi factorial, outdoor environment which is changes each year, he should try FARMING!

After the lecture we had a free lunch and drinks reception and then my last foreign visit was over. I have had an amazing time on my travels and learnt so much. The best things has been meeting new contacts and making new friends which is invaluable. Anyone thinking of applying for a Nuffield Scholarship “just do it!”

 

 

Jay Fuhrer, Menoken Farm, North Dakota – 26th June 2015

After visiting Gabe Brown I had a quick visit with Jay Fuhrer of The NRCS at Menoken Farm.

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Jay  is well known for his passion for soil health and speaks all around the world as a soil health advocate and is well know for his soil demonstrations.

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The first test above is the slake test. He put two different soils into each jar. One jar had a soil that had been under full tillage, no cover crops, low crop diversity and no livestock on the left and the other is no till, cover crops, high crop diversity and includes livestock on the right. As you can see the soil on the left falls apart and disintegrates whereas the soil on the right stays intact. This illustrates that the soil on the right has Glomalin glue to stick the soil together whereas the other falls parts when you get heavy rain and is off down the river causing soil erosion, nitrate and phosphate pollution. This degradation happened within minutes.

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The next test is the infiltration test. Same difference in soil but this time the same amount of water is poured on top. As you can see the one on the right infiltrates water through it quickly so if there is rain it does not run off. You still get nitrates run through that soil but that is why you always need a living root to catch the nutrients. The one on the left hardly infiltrates and in the real world would run off.

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The third test is the run off test. The first soil on the left is hay land for winter feeding. The next is high disturbance, low crop diversity, no covers and no livestock. The third is low disturbance, low crop diversity and no covers and the one on the right is low disturbance, high crop diversity with cover crops. The picture below is the result from the back.

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Unfortunately the one third from the left had a big hole in the bottom so more infiltrated than should have. I was Jay’s guinea pig for tuesday. Though you can see the two middle ones had dirty water and the outside ones were clean. Obviously you want infiltration and if there is run off for it to be clean.

The final experiment was the rainfall simulator.  There is a water nozzle above the different soil which applies an inch of rain and the results are below.

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The one on the left is no till, low diversity, no covers and no livestock. The jar hanging shows there is some dirt run off and the bottom jar shows little infiltration. The second soil is season long grazing, this shows poor infiltration and some dirty run off. The third soil is hay land with no exporting. This is the best showing infiltration and virtually no run off. The fourth jar is just no till. This shows good infiltration but a little dirty run off. The last is conventional tillage and is terrible!

After the soil demos we had a look at the field around the farm.

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The first is a plot of the “three sisters” which is pumpkins, sweetcorn and beans. These will be picked and the food go to the local food banks.

The second field we went to was a sunflower field which had in between the rows a cover crop mix. The idea being the cover crop mix feeds the sunflowers.

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Then we went to a Soyabean field

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This also had a cover crop mixed in to feed the soya beans and attract beneficials.

They are also growing a continuous wheat field and the picture below shows the difference between the soil.

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As you can see the companion cropped sunflower soil is darker and crumblier than the continuous wheat. They have both been no till the same time the difference is the drop diversity increasing soil carbon and soil health. Also the sunflower has received no nitrogen fertiliser and the wheat field full application which demonstrates that artificial  nitrogen can burn off soil carbon.

I had an interesting few hours with Jay and unfortunately could not hang around as I needed to get to Canada. Jay was my last visit in the US and was fascinating. I am sure I could have learnt more if there longer. Thanks for your time Jay.

Gabe Brown, Bismarck, North Dakota – 26th June 2015

Gabe Brown is probably the most famous farmer in the sustainable agriculture circles for what he has achieved. He had 4 years of drought and hail and was almost broke so could not afford crop inputs so had to change his farm from a high input system. This has lead him down the current road he is on where the almost the only crop amendment he has is seed. He uses no fertiliser, no fungicicdes, insecticides or tillage. He has managed to build up his soils from 1.5% organic matter to today around 8%. He now has soil with incredible life and structure.

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This soil health is what has allowed Gabe to reduce his inputs so dramatically. He has done is by using no till, cover crops, very diverse rotations, intercropping and inclusion of livestock.

The first field we went to Gabe had planted sweetcorn plus beans.

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These crops will be for hand picking. Last year the field was his no till garden followed by a cover crop.

Gabe’s cover crop mixes are now having less legumes included because the residue disappears so quickly, so he needs crops with a high C:N ratio.

We then went to have a look at Gabe’s cattle. He is trying to have breeds that are hardy and have good eating quality as he sells a lot of his meat direct. He also likes breeds that are calm so the meat is more tender. So he has British whites in the mix.image

The cows are mob grazed so will often be moved twice a day. He normally has 500,000 to a 1,000,000 pounds of beef per acre. They basically take one bite then move on. The rest will be trampled. This means the plants have increased root depth and also means his forage increases along with rapid increase in soil health. The cows will be outside all year and during the winters will be grazed on covers until February and then be will give extra forage through bale grazing. They never receive a grain and are sold pasture fed.

Following the cows around the pastures are sheep and chickens. He has some for eggs and some for butchering

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Gabe also has hogs too. The hogs and chickens will be the only animals that receive grain. Neither are in permanent confinement.

With this system he has managed to grow 3 inches of topsoil in four years and finds that because his soil is so alive he has managed to extend his growing season due to the soil being warmer.

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The next field we looked as was rye and vetch. This was planted in October after a summer cover which was grazed. This field is for combining. It is a variety of vetch that he has grown for a long time and seed is running out so the grain from this mix will be kept mixed and used as cover crop seed. He has gone away from growing wheat and triticale as they have poorer rooting characteristics and do not promote soil health. The Rye is hardier and also gives him plenty of residue. Also Rye associates better with mychorizzae. There were weeds in the bottom of this crop but they were being shaded out by the crop.

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The next field was a crop of barley last year which was planted with two varieties of clover but the barley smothered them out. He has now planted a summer cover mix in which will be grazed later in the year

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The next field is some land he has taken on recently and was an old alfalfa stand which was losing production. So Gabe has seeded in some Rye and Vetch to help the soil life and improve the pasture.

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As you can see adding the annuals has invigorated the alfalfa. This field will be grazed and then he will plant some more rye and vetch to again improve the stand.

Then we went to see some of his corn. Gabe does not like to have large fields in one crop so either side of his corn he has planted some cover crops.

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The field was bale grazed last year as you can see. The idea of the cover crop is to attract pollinators so he does need any insecticides. The corn was planted with pole beans and they with act as a companion for the corn

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I had a fascinating morning with Gabe. It was great to see his farm with my own eyes not just You Tube. To see how someone has reduced his cost of production so much through holistic management was inspiring. Gabe doesn’t have any fancy machinery and doesn’t like to spend money. He also does not take crop insurance so has no government help. He also has three interns on the place so is helping the next generation. A true inspiration. Thanks Gabe.

Dr Dwayne Beck, Dakota Lakes Research Farm, Pierre, South Dakota – 25th June 2015

This afternoon I visited with Dr Dwayne Beck at Dakota Lakes Research Farm. Dakota Lakes was started in about 1990 when a group of farmers decided they wanted to have some independent research done. Now the South Dakota State University is involved as well. By coincidence today was the farmer field day so I spent the afternoon with lots of other farmers.

Dwayne is know for his work on rotations and for the importance he places on residue cover. Dakota Lakes is in a dry area so residue is especially key.

The picture below is in a plot in a corn/ Soyabean rotation

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This is a poor rotation and it shows in the soil. There is not enough residue from the Soyabean and not enough carbon in the system. The soil is platey and this is normally blamed on no till but it is the rotation and lack of diversity.

The picture below is in a corn on corn rotation.

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The structure is better as there is more residue and carbon in this rotation but it is a bad rotation due to no diversity. They leave the stalks as long as possible. This means when the wind blows it remain where it should be. Due to their healthy soil they don’t need Bt corn.

They have been experimenting with growing corn with a permanent crop of alfalfa. To start with they just mixed in the alfalfa and it has struggled.

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Now they have tried leaving one corn row empty and putting in alfalfa and then having two rows of corn with higher seed rates

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The hope is that the alfalfa will bring up lime, water and other nutrients from deep.

They also have a wheat/ wheat corn/ corn Soyabean/ Soyabean rotation.

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With this rotation there is good residue and more diversity.

When they have a rotation with 50% low residue crops the crops can fail on the non irrigated land.

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The crop above is Teff grass which is after a failed wheat crop. As you can see the low residue leads to poor soil structure.

We then had talks on wheat pests and diseases which were not too different to our own and also talks on pea varieties. The we had a talk on some new crops they are trying

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Above is a relative of OSR whose name I forget, flax and Camelina. They are oilseeds and they are looking at using them for jet fuel of the US Navy.

We also saw where they were growing red clover in wheat. They will also be inter seeding ARG into corn next week using the coated seeds.

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The idea of this coating is to allow seeds to be broadcast successfully. The coating absorbs moisture and gets the seed started. If this is successful it could be a real game changer.

When we got back we heard from Sandy Smart

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He works for SDSU and is a rangeland specialist. They are looking at converting the roadside verges to native grass species for wildlife and also for baling. These bales could be used for forage or for biofuels and would replace the need for quite a lot of corn to be grown for ethanol. They are also looking to try to get livestock integrated back onto crop land to improve soil health.

I also had a quick look at their planter. It is a monster!

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Later in the evening I had some time with Dwayne and Sandy and we drove onto their Northern site to have a look around. My visit was very short but informative as ever when spending time with the Godfather of Sustainable Agriculture. Thank you to Dwayne and his team for letting me gate crash their field day. It is great to see independent research been done for farmers.

Ron Alverson, Chester, South Dakota – 25th June 2015

This morning I had a quick visit with Ron Alverson. Ron is a farmer half a hour south of Brookings. He was recommended to me by Dr Dwayne Beck because he does ridge till. Something I had never heard off

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The idea off ridge till is to plant crops on permanent ridges. The advantages of this for Ron is that the ridges warm up quicker in the spring and also are drained better if it turns wet.

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Not sure how well the ridges have come out on camera but these ridges have just been reformed by the machine below.

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It takes a few years for the ridges to build up and to settle down. They are reformed every year though after planting. They have had to adapt their other machinery. Below is their planter which has the rollers in front for depth control

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They also have these wheels on the front to guide the planter along the furrow

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Their harvester also has special dual wheels so they don’t run down the ridges

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Ron grows corn four out of five years and has the other year in soyabeans. As corn produces lots of residue they have managed to build up their organic matter by about 1.5% in the last 30 years of ridge till.

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Ron’s outlet for his corn is two local ethanol plants. One of which he is a part owner off along with another 1000 farmers. His local fuel supplier now supplies different grades/ percentages of fuel with ethanol.

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He needs all these different grades as different vehicles can tolerate different levels of ethanol inclusion.

Thanks to Ron for seeing me at late notice. It was interesting to see something different but not sure how we would incorporate it into a small grains rotation!

Dr Jonathan Lundgren, USDA ARS, Brooking, South Dakota – 24th of June 2015

Luckily Dr Lundgren worked in the same building as Dr Anderson so I did not have to go far for my afternoon appointment. Dr Lundgren is an entomologist and I wanted to get an insight into how companion cropping could overcome our insect problems. We spent the first hour speaking about Bruchid beetles in beans and cereal aphids in wheat and got some really good ideas on how to combat these pests. We then had a look around their laboratory. Below is an experiment on counting the numbers of insects in different soil cores.

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The idea is the lights slowly dry out and drive out the insects in the soil and they are then caught in beakers below and are then are counted and identified. They are also looking at the effects on soil health when insects are removed from soil.

They were also looking into the insect diversity in dung. Below is the diversity of insects in dung, each is a bottle of a different species

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They are looking at diversity and the effects of wormers and antibiotics on the dung community.

Out in the field Jonathan has an experiment on different oilseed crops as buffer strips for beneficial insects for soya bean aphid. They are growing Canola, Borage and Cuphea. These are three oilseed crops which flower at different times. The idea is to test the aphid control on the untreated soya beans and also sell the produce of the pollinator buffers. The only way they are going to get farmers to plant these buffers is if they can make some money on them so they plan to harvest the buffers.

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Jonathon is also growing Phacelia, clover and borage for seed on the ground of a friend of his next door

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His friend is Brett L. Adee who came over for dinner in the evening and his company is the biggest honey producer in the world

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Mikey on the left works for Jonathan, middle is Brett and on the right is Jonathan. Not only are they growing these crops for seed but also Brett is going place hives around the field and produce honey. They have found that hives around soya bean fields increase yields by 40%.

Jonathan is doing a lot of interesting work and has courted a large amount of controversy for some of his findings on neonics. Hopefully he us going to carry on doing his pioneering work because as farmers we need independent scientists like Jonathan to paddle against the tide and think for themselves. Keep doing the good work Jonathon. We as farmers need people like you to give us the true facts.

Dr Randy Anderson, ARS, Brookings, South Dakota – 24th June 2015

This morning I spent with Dr Randy Anderson. He is a researcher for the USDA ARS and is looking at organic no till and finding out how to get it to work. Dr Anderson is a weed scientist. The idea of organic no till fascinates me and the fact that someone is doing systems research into this I think is great. Dr Anderson is a firm believer in rotations and crop sequences and has come up with a nine year rotation with 3 years of red clover which he mows to get on top of the perennial weeds. Dr Andeson also came to my attention with his work on seed bank reduction in no till.

Dr Anderson had organised a visit to Don Deweerd’s farm in Minnesota. Don is an organic farmer and has been farming his 200 acres organically for 37 years. When we turned up there was a load of other people there to so we had a brainstorming meeting and a farm tour.

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Dr Anderson is on the right and Don Deweerd is in the middle with the beard. One reason Dr Anderson had organised to visit with Don is because he has been experimenting with an interrow mower, which wasn’t there! What I found interesting about speaking to everyone was that they had problems with weeds and tillage and they were wanting to reduce their tillage and weeds through rotation and I was there wanting to reduce my synthetic inputs through rotation. We were all looking at the same goal but coming at it from different directions.

Don below in one corner of the field had a problem with Ragweed

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Dr Anderson immediately knew the answer to getting on top of this weed through rotation. He was so knowledgable.

Don grows corn and soya beans and peas

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He was also intercropping oats and clover.

He also had a trial on his farm for pollinators for Dr Lundgren. There were 13 species of plant that they were testing to see their efficacy of attracting beneficials

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It was Don’s birthday today so he and his wife had organised lunch for us all. Their hospitality was great and I really enjoyed my visit.

Luckily on the drive to and from the farm I got some time to talk to Dr Anderson about his theories and work and got some really good ideas of how to handle done of our weed problems. He has a huge amount of knowledge and I felt I could speak with him all day. Thank you Randy for your time, I really enjoyed it.

Liz Sarno, Linwood, Nebraska – 23rd of June 2015

Liz farms with her partner Larry in the rolling hills of Nebraska.

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Liz is an organic farmer and farms Devon cows and goats in the very windy and usually dry hills around Abie, Nebraska. Her partner Larry is a small grains farmer from just down the road and he is also organic. Liz used to work in the local extension office running their organic program but now works only on the farm.

In the morning we went to see Larry’s organic crops. Larry farms his crops in strips and now grows wheat and soya beans

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The idea of the strips is to get the edge effects that has been talked about before and also to encourage pollinators. The strips are then rotated every year

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Larry had just been cultivating his soya beans. Below is what they look like before cultivating

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Larry does not do any weed control in his wheat and it is remarkably clean. He does not need to use any artificial N or even organic N to achieve good yields. He has interseeded his wheat with clover. He will also plant a cover crop if possible and has been for 25 years.

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They have been trialling a few things and the first is a flame weeder. They have teamed up with a NASA engineer and have come up with the below weeder which is quick and efficient.

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Liz tells me that Larry is into Heavy Metal, he basically loves his equipment and tillage. She has been getting him to try new methods and he has reduced his tillage by 50%. One of the things they have been trying is roller crimping triticale then planting in soya beans. They have a trial plot where they are testing different varieties of triticale and also different killing dates.

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They are also testing the effects on soil moisture which can be low in this dry environment

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One things I noticed on their farms were that there was lots of noise from insects and birds and other wildlife. Their farm was buzzing. The next thing Larry showed me was shocking. The creek below has eroded so much that now it is about 15m deep

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Larry’s grandmother used to cross this creek in a horse and cart. So in a hundred years they have lost all that soil. This is quite a brittle environment and the soil erosion in the area is horrific. Below is a field of corn which is tilled and has no residue or contour waterways and so when it rains the soil just washes off

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This field is so badly eroded that the sprayer can no longer cross the gulley in the middle of the field as it is too deep. The soil management in some parts of America that I have seen is truly appalling. Their needs to be some drastic action as they are losing soil at a terrible rate.

In the afternoon we looked around Liz’s farm and her livestock. Liz breeds Red Devon cattle which are a breed that nearly disappeared from America. She has got semen before from NZ but can not import from the UK due to Foot and Mouth, that was 15 years ago!

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They were some beautiful cattle and have never been fed grain. She also keeps goats on the farm. She used to have pastured poultry but not anymore. Liz has just put up a new hoop barn.

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The idea of the barn is to give shelter to the forage bales and also some shelter to the animals if the winter gets bad. Normally the cows would stay outside.

Later in the afternoon we went to visit Doug at Branched Oak Farm, http://www.branchedoakfarm.com Doug does organic Jersey dairy and makes cheeses, cream and sells milk also. They are just about to open a restaurant too in Lincoln. He also had young interns on the farm who were starting their own enterprises. It was a small farm but there was lots going on and Doug must be the most relaxed, contented person I have ever met.

After this visit we went back to Liz’s and I got packed and drove here to Brookings South Dakota, a short 4 1/2 hour drive. Many thanks to Liz and Larry for their hospitality. They were two very passionate people about their farm and farming and had so many more ideas of what new things to try on their farm. I really enjoyed the day and evening with them. Hopefully I might see them in England if they come again

Robin Griffeth, Jewell, Kansas – 22nd of June 2015

 So after a 500 mile journey on Sunday this morning I was with Robin Griffeth in Kansas, once I had finally found him or rather he had found me. Sat Nav was wrong and so was Google maps, not a good start to a Monday morining. Robin has come to my attention from reading No till farmer magazine and also he was recommended by Gabe Brown. Robin and his son Kelly farm Wheat, Barley, Triticale, Sunflowers, Sorghum, Milo and Soya beans. Some of those are double cropping.

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The first field we looked at was a field of wheat after Soyabeans. Until May they had had a drought and Robin was not sure this field was going to make it. (They have now had 14 inches of rain in the last 6 weeks). The main problem they are finding is that soyabeans leave no residue which is not good in their dry climate.

The next field we went to was wheat after a triticale/ pea intercrop and there was plenty of residue and Robin thought the yield potential was much higher.

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Residue seems to be a common theme over here that once your soils are biologically active they eat up the residue so quickly.

Below is a field just planted with soya beans

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There is plenty of residue there but no so much in the field that had just been planted with Milo

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Robin is fed up with modern wheat varieties. They are too short which means less residue and they do not seem to tolerate drought very well so he is trying some old heritage varieties. The field below is only 4 acres but has his best and worst soil in it so it is a good test for the heritage varieties to see how they do.

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Robin in is also trying Barley this year. Strangely enough their wheat is bearded and their barley is awnless.  Some awnless Barley would be nice to try at home.

The reason Robin has got some press is because of his companion cropped sunflowers. He planted a cover crop after wheat and it got later in the year and they thought it might be worth combining the sunflowers. These sunflowers out yielded the double crop Monocrop. So they tried it again the next year and found that planted crops of companion sunflowers in wide rows actually failed whereas drilled mixed row companion crops made a good crop. So now they plant about a twelve way mix and harvest the sunflowers.

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They have found that this companion crop needs no insecticide or fertiliser whereas the monorop needs both. Quite incredible!

Just as I was leaving Robin stopped me and showed me the crop of Triticale below

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This crop is after the companion cropped sunflowers and has received no inputs! Looked great. It is also a new crop for Robin as cheap to grow and lots of residue.

Robin is doing some great things on his place and hopes to companion crop all his crops as he has seen such dramatic benefits. He is doing a great job in a tough environment.

Gregg Sanford, Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trial (WISCT) – 18th of June 2015

This afternoon I met with Gregg Sanford of the University of Wisconsin at their Arlington Research Station. This is where they have their cropping systems trial. ( http://www.WICST.wisc.edu )

This trial was started in 1990 and was designed to look at many factors of different farming systems effects on soil, economics, yield and other environmental factors.

There are six systems they are running. Three grain systems: conventional continuous corn,

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no till corn soya bean rotation (these are drilled no till soya beans)

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and organic corn, soya bean, wheat.

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Then there are three forage systems: three years of alfalfa and one year corn, ( this is drilled first year alfalfa)

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organic oats underseeded with alfalfa, two years of alfalfa then corn. ( this is forage oats and alfalfa just been cuimage

Then one permanent pasture system, which Gregg is standing in front of in the first picture. There is a dairy on site and they return manure to the plots before corn. They try to treat each plot separately as a field as a farmer would.

They have had some interesting results. The pasture system is the only one that the carbon in the top few inches has stabilised in terms of the amount of C. All the rest have lost carbon over time. All of the systems have lost carbon from the depths of two to four feet. They think there is a few reasons for this. One could be climate. The other is that in the annual systems the carbon is not being replenished at depth as there are not many roots there. Even in the pasture system the roots are not as deep as the original prairie grass. Even the deep rooting alfalfa has not replenished this carbon as the roots are course and not fine. They reckon when this land was first tilled out of prairie they lost 50% of the soil carbon in the first decade or so.

In terms of yields the continuous corn yield about 180 bushels but the corn in the alfalfa rotation yields 220 bushels and the organic corn about 215 bushels.

In terms of economics the organic systems and the forage systems have the best return. The organic systems as their is a premium for the produce and the pasture system as the overheads are so low (no need for expensive machinery)

They have done many studies on the trial which can be found on their website. They also have included a plot of native prairie grasses to see the effects on the soil.

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Gregg has recently been to the UK for a conference on systems trials at Newcastle University. It seems that systems research is becoming more recognised which is great for us farmers as it should give us more relevant results for out in the field.

Thanks to Gregg for the visit. It was a shame is was short as I am sure we could have chatted for ages .