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NFU Comment: David Barker reflects on a mixed year for farmers in Suffolk

06:00 26 January 2014

The Challenger at work at the Barkers' farm at Westhorpe. Photo by Brian Barker.

The Challenger at work at the Barkers' farm at Westhorpe. Photo by Brian Barker.

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Looking back on 2013, it was a year of mixed fortunes for Suffolk farmers.

Those of us farming the heavy soils obtained a harvest much better than we expected.

The winter was wet, the spring was cold and everything was late in development.

Spring sown crops and sugar beet drilling was delayed and disjointed due to the March frozen snow snap.

However, from April onwards we had a near perfect climate, which transformed patchy struggling crops to those that in many cases surpassed expectations.

The combination of sun and regular rain during the growing season, followed by settled harvest weather, helped reduced drying costs and ensured crops yielded well with good quality.

It was quite the reverse of 2012. Looking back over 2013 we have done what we set out to do, we have pushed our farms performance forward by producing crops that yielded above our five year average and the production of these crops has become more efficient.

Farming has witnessed major changes which do not seem to slow down.

The modern farm in most cases is a highly efficient unit with great attention to detail and science has moved the industry forward and enabled consumers to have a plentiful supply of food. Mechanisation continues to transform farming.

Our tractors are now equipped with GPS receiver technology similar to satellite navigation in a car.

This technology actually steers the machine and implements up and down the field to two centimetre accuracy, without the driver touching the steering wheel.

It is repeatable across the field so that no human overlaps are possible throughout a long working day. It has improved the speed and accuracy of the operations in the field, reduced fuel consumption and allowed the drivers to feel fresher after a long day’s work.

New technology like this is mainstream now but where will it go next? Driverless robot tractors? I hope not!

A highlight of 2013 for our family farm was winning the large farms section of the Suffolk Agricultural Association’s farms competition.

We had only ever won this magnificent trophy once before, back in 1980 when I was of a similar age to Patrick and Brian.

We faced a very high standard of entries and the surprise of winning left me overwhelmed but brought back memories of the joy shared by my parents and grandparents 33 years earlier.

The most satisfying aspect was that we also won the conservation award, showing beyond doubt you can produce high quality crops and also have a large quantity of wildlife on the farm.

We are never likely to have the volume of wildlife on Suffolk farms as I can remember as a child. Farming, like many aspects of rural life, has changed dramatically. Suffolk in the 1950s had more than four times the farm holdings of today (8,067 in 1955) and every farm would have had livestock.

I estimate almost half would have had a dairy herd. In Westhorpe there were six farms with milking cattle and today I can only think of two farms with dairy cows within 10 miles.

In my view the loss of livestock has had the most significant adverse impact on farmland birds.

The small mixed family farm was a relative oasis for birds. However to the large proportion of people working long hours of manual labour I am not sure they would always concur.

The Higher Level Stewardship Scheme our farm entered in 2008, to reverse this decline in biodiversity has really delivered amazing benefits.

Last year was a superb year for butterflies and other insects, the colony of great crested newts has expanded but it is in my view farmland birds that are the best indicator of a healthy countryside.

The spring of 2013 was poor for barn owls - the females in most cases never achieved their breeding weight - but the greatest success story has been the population of yellowhammers.

My son Patrick has ringed over a thousand yellowhammers on the farm in the last four years.

Almost all have fledged on the farm and there has only been one record of a yellowhammer from this farm appearing elsewhere.

Creating a large population of birds is not rocket science but it does take careful management of features and providing winter food. Hedges are only trimmed from December to February on a three year rotation.

Long grass is retained late into winter and this ensures birds like the yellowhammers can have a late brood of young.

I despair when I witness farmers flailing hedges in August, not only destroying a valuable food source but there are so many far more important things to be doing on the farm post-harvest.

The provision of winter food is vital, not only to our native birds but many that migrate here during the year.

We have experimented with a number of different wild bird seed mixes.

These giant bird tables sown each year have a mix of sunflowers, fodder radish, millet, triticale, oats and mustard.

At this time of year we see huge flocks of linnet, yellowhammers and finches like reed bunting, greenfinches and chaffinches.

We as farmers have many challenges ahead but it is possible to produce food in an attractive countryside, I am glad Owen Paterson resisted demands for more money to be removed from our farmers in the EU changes.

Farmers are working long hours to deliver high quality food and to retain a living countryside for all of us to enjoy and each year we are I believe getting better at delivering this.

: : David Barker and his family farm at Westhorpe, near Stowmarket.

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