Tuesday 20 December 2016

Farming in 2046

The arrival of my wonderful nephew earlier this year has got me to thinking about what farming will look like in 30 years if Elliot wants to continue the family business.

The simple answer may be to say that there is no future for small family farms, Oak Farm will have been sold and amalgamated into a large, efficient arable unit, farmed by very few people and large machinery.  Given present trends, this is the most likely outcome, but I'd like to present a more hopeful picture.

Here's what Elliot might be doing in 2046.  Most of the ideas are other people's. I've just mashed them together in a flight of fancy.

The low-cost and reliable technology available to farmers in 2046 allows Elliot to work on a second job to bring in off-farm income.  Technology, together with an agro-ecology approach to the whole farm system means that Elliot doesn't have to spend days driving a crop sprayer.

Oak Farm has returned to being a mixed farm, like it was in 1939 when Elliot's great-great-grandfather established the business.  Grass leys were introduced to counter the pernicious weed black-grass and increase soil organic matter, and are grazed by a small herd of Lincoln Reds.  Each animal has a tiny bio-sensor implanted under the skin (like microchip tags used on pets in 2016, but with much greater functionality) which report real time data on health and feed intake straight to Elliot's iphone 25. Grazing is managed using a mob grazing system with electric fences.  The system uses feed intake data from the animals' bio-sensors, grass-level sensors in the paddock and weather data to monitor grass growth rates and automatically open the gates to move the mob onto the next paddock when needed. 

This morning an alert on Elliot's phone indicates that an animal is lame and requires an injection. For this job there is no need to bring the animal into the crush as the injection can be administered using a dart.  Elliot carefully stashes his air-rifle into his Landrover hybrid, which runs on bioethanol from straw or the battery charged from the solar panels on the shed roof.  As he drives across the field the HUD (Head Up Display) identifies the animal in need of attention.

The crops grown include a number of grains, bred and grown for their nutritional properties, but above all, their flavour.  Oak Farm's 'Wellingore Red' wheat has a considerable following in the artisan bakery world.  The wheat is not a pure line variety as grown back in the 2010s but a resilient population, able to tolerate plant diseases.  The reduction of the need for fungicides has brought an additional welcome benefit in that the straw breaks down quicker when returned to the soil after harvest and the mats of straw that once harboured slugs are a thing of the past.

There are actually two populations of Wellingore Red, one higher yielding and stiffer strawed for the heavier clays and another that is more reliable on the sandier parts due to its deeper roots.  Both mature at the same time and have the same renown flavour.  The type that is sown and the seed rate is varied across the field according to the soil map in the drill's management software.  As the drill is a large, expensive piece of kit it is shared by several farms.  Wheat is drilled mixed with a carefully chosen blend of clover, lucerne and medic as nitrogen-fixing companion plants.

Weeds are controlled by a small herd of weeder-bots. These work autonomously and continuously, roaming the fields and destroying weeds by burning their meristems with lasers or injecting a tiny dose of herbicide.  They are sometimes guided to their work area by an agri-drone.  This is a small blimp airship drone, solar-powered and able to stay aloft for long periods, shared by several farms in the parish.  The weeder-bots have an extensive data-base of plant species, and leave alone non-competitive or high biodiversity value plants and manage weed populations to keep them below thresholds rather than eliminating them entirely.  This greater plant diversity allows greater populations of beneficial insects such as hoverflies, largely eliminating the need for insecticides.  The companion lucerne has also been genetically engineered to repel aphids from the fields.

Today, the reaper-bot is cutting Elliot's crop of high-beta-glucan naked barley.  The reaper-bot is an autonomous machine based on the idea of the reaper-binder familiar to Elliot's great great grandfather. It cuts the corn and bundles it into sheaves, and unlike the old reaper-binder, it also props up groups of sheaves into stooks.  At the same time as cutting, the reaper-bot broadcasts cover crop seed.  Once the grain has dried in the stook the sheaves will be collected and threshed by the harvest-bot.  Splitting the cutting and threshing functions of the 20th Century combine harvester between two machines allows smaller lighter machinery that causes less soil compaction.  The naked barley will be used for porridge, marketed by a joint-venture company between a group of growers and a small processor to make sure everyone in the supply chain gets a fair share.
White spelt - one of the tasty grains that Oak Farm grows in 2046

Saturday 16 January 2016

Forgotten wheat

Nearly all the wheat we grow in the UK is of one species, the hexaploid Triticum aestivum.  Spelt is also a hexaploid and sometimes regarded as a sub-species, but is fully crossable with T. aestivum bread or common wheat.

Tetraploid wheat, Triticum turgidum, includes durum (pasta), rivet, emmer and Khorasan wheat.  Of these, emmer was grown in the UK in the Bronze and Iron Ages and rivet from late Anglo Saxon times until the 1940s.  Durum wheat is grown in the South East, but is not well adapted to wet summers, most pasta being produced from durum grown in North America.

Could tetraploid wheats have a role in UK agriculture again, especially in light of the interest in 'ancient grains' ?

I tried a plot of Khorasan wheat last summer (sold under the trade name Kamut), but it really didn't get on well in the wet Shropshire summer of 2015. 
Khorasan wheat June 2015
The plants didn't tiller at all so the crop was very thin.  In its favour, it did mature far earlier than conventional spring wheat, at the same time as spring barley, and it did produce the distinctive hump-backed very large hard grains of Khorasan.  An idea I plan to try this year is a naked barley and Khorasan wheat intercrop, similar to that used in Eritrea as 'hanfets', to take advantage of the equal maturity.  Also the canopies should be complementary, barley being dense at the base with a small flag leaf, Khorasan being very open at the base with a large flag leaf.  If the idea works the Khorasan ears will over-top the barley and ripen in the sun without shading the barley too much, which will make use of the light getting through the sparse Khorasan canopy.

Khorasan x Rivet F2
I've also made a cross between rivet and Khorasan.  English rivet is better adapted to wetter summers, with graceful curving upper stems and ears that nod right over to let water run off.  Its disadvantage is that it is very slow developing, traditionally being the first wheat sown in autumn and the last to harvest.  The cross with Khorasan should speed it up somewhat and allow me to develop a spring rivet to mix with the naked barley if the hanfets idea works.

Monday 10 August 2015

Naked barley grown in Lincolshire (for the first time since the Iron Age?)

To have any chance of being a successful crop in the UK and delivering the public health benefits that it promises, naked barley needs to perform on the farm, not just in trial plots.  While I was at Bangor University we tried farm trials of the naked varieties Taiga and Lawina, both of which only yielded around 3 t/ha on farm, only half of a covered spring barley, and less than the 4-5 t/ha they achieved in plot trials.

This year for the first time I had enough seed of my crosses to sow a 0.7 ha (1.75 acre) plot on my parents' farm in Lincolnshire.  I bulked together seed from nine crosses including Lawina, an ICARDA variety from Syria, and a Tibetan landrace as sources of the naked trait; and seven UK covered varieties, as sources of UK adaptation, agronomic traits and disease resistance.  The practical reason was that I didn't have enough seed of any one cross; the other advantage of this diversity was to generate a population in a similar manner to Martin Wolfe's pioneering work at Wakelyns and Elm Farm.

The trial was drilled on 8 March and established well, although the seed rate was low as we were trying to make the limited seed cover as large an area as possible, which caused a problem later.

Setting up a commercial combine ( our 25 year old MF 34) for naked barley was the next challenge.  We found that two factors were important to reduce the number of broken grains: first to slow the drum speed from the usual 1000 rpm for covered barley to 800; secondly to make sure the concave was full at all times to cushion the grain as it was being threshed.

We did a trial run along the edge but were breaking too many grains because not enough material was going through the concave to cushion the grains. Taking a full width cut and keeping speed up improved the sample greatly.
The important results are yield and quality: Yield was over 5 t/ha for the mix and 6 t/ha for a strip from a single cross, proving that viable yields can be achieved on farm with conventional mangement.  

Quality was good except for broken grains (solved by slowing drum and ensuring a full concave), fragments of ear (which could be removed by a grain cleaner) and green grains from secondary tillers due to the lower than optimum plant population.  Grains were bold and bright with an impressive specific weight (bushel weight) of >79 kg/hl (vs. 65-70 for covered barley).
So, the first naked barley crop in Lincolnshire, possibly since prehistoric times, has shown that this ancient grain has the yield and quality to be viable once again.

Sunday 22 March 2015

Soil-building wheat

Out of curiosity I grew some Rampton Rivet alongside the Holdfast shown in a previous post.

Rivet wheat (Triticum turgidum sbsp. turgidum) is a tetraploid wheat, related to durum (T. turgidum sbsp. durum) and was grown up until the Second World War.  Another name for it is English Wheat, although it appears that common or bread wheat (T. aestivum) was always the most important (Bell, 1948).

Rivet was recommended for "clay soils of low fertility", whilst the high yield and quality bread wheats such as Holdfast are suited to "land in good heart" (Stapledon and Davies, 1948).

Rampton Rivet was an improved selection from the Rivet landraces of Cambridgeshire, and was very much last of the line.  Rivet is no longer grown commercially in UK, except on a very small scale.  

Having seen differences in rooting between modern wheat and spelt, and reading about Rivet's suitability for clay, I expected the root system to be better than modern wheat. I was still shocked by the contrast.
On the left is Skyfall, a modern variety; on the right is Rampton Rivet.  Both were sown at the same time and grown in the same glasshouse.  Skyfall is a superb modern variety, with a yield to match barn-filling feed varieties, high quality grain and a good agronomic package.  Rivet on the other hand is a machine to pump carbon into the soil, with thick, deep scavenging roots and a mass of fine roots.  The straw is also very coarse, therefore a good source of the lignin that feeds beneficial soil fungi that are often deficient in our soils.

Have we lost something here?  Is there a place for crops that help keep the soil in "good heart"?

Bell G.D.H. (1948). Cultivated Plants of the Farm. Cambridge: CUP
Stapledon R.G. and Davies W. (1948). Ley Farming. London: Faber

Thursday 19 March 2015

Breeding the 'perfect' naked barley

I've been lucky to be allowed some time to indulge in unfunded hobby breeding at Harper Adams, but why isn't this work being done by a proper plant breeder?  The answer is that nearly all plant breeding in the UK is done commercially,  paid for by breeders' rights and and so breeders get paid for every tonne of seed sold or saved on farm.  Therefore it simply isn't economic to breed niche crops like naked barley or spelt - far better to go for the next barn-filler feed wheat.

My system is simple and low-tech:

1. Choose parents and make the cross
2. Grow the F1 plants in the glasshouse to get as many F2 seeds as possible (2000-3000 ideally).
3. Grow a plot of F2 in the field
4. Select the best naked grain ears and keep a sample of the remainder
5. Grow 10-20 of these selections over-winter as F3 in the glasshouse
6. Bulk the selections back (discarding any 'rejects' and keeping any really promising back for single-seed descent
7. Sow a plot of the F4 selections and a plot of the bulk F3 to allow further selections - don't want to discard too much too soon.
8. Mass select the F4 plot - e.g. remove talls, weak plants, diseased plants and repeat mass selection in following years.

By doing this, I've now got several mass-selected, fairly uniform populations for replicated yield trials plus some pure lines derived from single plant selections.

The photos are of some of the mass-selected plots in 2014, looking fairly uniform and an ear of a pure line coded S9.  I'm quite hopeful about this line as it has fragile pales that release the grains easily when threshed to give a very clean sample.

Sunday 2 November 2014

White Spelt

A change from barley for this post - proving that I don't have a one track mind.

Wheat can be divided and classified into groups in several ways: spring vs. winter; hard vs. soft; milling vs. feed.  A less used classification (in the UK, anyway) is grain colour, probably because nearly all the wheat in the UK is red-grained.  White-grained wheat lacks the tannins in the seed coat that can give bitter flavours to wholegrain, so is very suited to a range of healthy wholegrain foods.  The disadvantage of white wheat is susceptibility to sprouting, which was the only weakness of 'Holdfast' wheat, released by the Plant Breeding Institute in 1935, and long considered the gold standard for UK bread making wheat quality.

Holdfast wheat grains - super quality bold clean grains (from Mike Ambrose at the Germplasm Resources Unit at the John Innes Centre).

Nearly three years ago I had a daft idea that I scribbled down in my field notebook "white spelt??". 

The origins of European spelt wheat are a subject of debate, but the most likely theory is that spelt came from a chance hybridisation between hexaploid wheat Triticum aestivum (genome = AABBDD) and tetraploid emmer Triticum turgidum (AABB), as the D genome shared by modern bread wheat and spelt is identical but the A and B genomes differ.

Spelt remained in cultivation in areas around the Alps where it was better able to tolerate colder poorer soils and is now undergoing a resurgence due to its flavour and suitability for low-input growing.

My idea was that a white-grained spelt would have a unique sweeter wholegrain flavour, possibly be suited to sowing later in autumn (a practice to control black-grass, but risks sowing into wetter colder seedbeds) and perhaps the tough glumes would help protect against moisture ingress (and so help reduce sprouting) and fungal pathogens.

Spelt can be easily hybridised with common wheat by conventional plant breeding, so I made the cross between a modern white grain wheat and spelt, grew on the progeny and selected the white grain 'spelty' plants.

This is not proper science (just curiosity-driven mucking about) so will never get a BBSRC grant for it, nor is industry-led applied science - millers haven't asked for it and farmers won't be interested in growing a lower yielding crop without a market.  

Not sure about baking quality etc. as have never had enough seed - a few trial plots sown this autumn to hopefully get some grain to play with next harvest.
Probably be never more than a curiosity, but here are some photos:

Normal red spelt vs. white spelt

Holdfast white wheat vs. white spelt - spelt grains are longer with a keel

Spring-sown white spelt - v. late to ripen vs. spring barley, best sow in autumn

winter-sown white spelt vs. Solstice wheat - ears much longer on the spelt

Tuesday 16 September 2014

uzu - Japanese barley in Shropshire

Firstly I haven't posted in a while - busy with harvest and now getting ready for the new term at Harper Adams.

I'm now using twitter for small updates and photos and this blog when I want to go into more depth than 140 characters allows.

My twitter handle is @naked_barley 

Earlier in the year I promised to explain what uzu barley is.

If you've seen The Seven Samurai (the Kurosawa original), you may remember that the villagers' plight is that that bandits have stolen their rice harvest and will come back to steal the barley, leaving the villagers to starve, hence the urgency to employ protection before the harvest.

In the double crop system traditionally used in Japan, mugi (winter corn) is sown after the rice harvest in October. Barley or rye are the preferred choices as they mature before the rainy season in June, and are then followed once more by rice.  

Most Japanese naked barley varieties grown as mugi are uzu types, which are dwarf varieties, with stiff straw, ideal for growing in fertile soils.  The uzu dwarfing gene confers insensitivity to brassinosteroids (BR), whilst Western dwarf barley uses genes such as sdw, conferring insensitivity to gibberellin (GA).

The uzu gene also causes the leaves to be short and erect and prevents the lower stems etiolating (extending) in response to shade - hence uzu barley may be suitable for high plant densities to suppress weeds.  

Grains of uzu barley are round and fat and ideal for a range of food uses.

So why not try uzu in the UK?

The problem is the lack of adaptation to the UK, especially to day length.  Anyone who's tried growing Oriental vegetables such as pak choi will have found that the long days in summer often cause the plants to flower (bolt).  Spring sown uzu barley sent to me by Mike Ambrose at the John Innes Centre when I was at Bangor did exactly this.  It produced ears very quickly without tillering (producing extra stems) and the biomass and yields were low.  Sowing in October produced better results, but Bangor's Henfaes Research Centre is near sea level on the coast and has very mild winters.  When I autumn-sowed uzu barley at Harper the Shropshire winter killed more than half the plants - back to the drawing board.

I crossed the Japanese Kitagawa Chobo with Westminster and the results were encouraging, except for a tendency for the stem base to be weak, so I crossed again onto Westminster (a backcross).

Now we can start to see the uzu trait in an adapted background.

The uzu plots are also darker green but the erect leaves let more light into the lower canopy - a more even distribution of photosynthesis.

Grains are excellent - specific weight of 80 kg/hl vs. 65-70 in 'normal' barley.