Farming opinion: Decision-making in farming is as complex as a game of chess

PUBLISHED: 06:00 28 August 2018

The combine in action at Brian Barker's farm Picture: BRIAN BARKER

The combine in action at Brian Barker's farm Picture: BRIAN BARKER

Brian Barker

On November 1, 2017, Brian Barker’s farm at Westhorpe, near Stowmarket, became the Agricultural Horticultural Development Board’s (AHDB) first Strategic Farm for Cereals and Oilseeds in the UK. This month he looks at the decision-making process

Stale seed beds with a weed flush of black grass Picture: BRIAN BARKERStale seed beds with a weed flush of black grass Picture: BRIAN BARKER

Farming is a sequence of decisions, made throughout the year by the farmer and his trusted advisers.

Each decision made will then have a knock on effect that could see immediate change; like the use of the correct pesticide to treat weed infestation, disease outbreak or pest attack. Other decisions could take a few years to pan out to see if the change was positive or negative. Strategies need to be fluid and flexible to change, given the risk that is associated with producing crops in such volatile and variable environment in the way of climate, politics and commodity price.

Like a skilful chess player,farmers will have strategies for all crops, fields and situation. Long term strategy of crop rotation is one that I have been looking at recently. I have a long rotation of 12 years built around growing herbage grass seed on a contract for seeding professional sports pitches and lawn turf. With my rotation plan I try and utilise different crops in an order through the years to allow me to bring other farming strategies into play. These other strategies come into play if the opportunity arises like cultivation; direct drilling can be used following some crops then a full soil inversion methods of the plough or deeper soil work like mole draining would be required elsewhere.

This will have financial implication as soil movement cost me money but also if will then have knock on implications to allow other farming techniques to be used such as cover crops or stale seed beds. Cover cropping is a technique that will rejuvenate soil and stale seedbeds will reduce weed burden but you can’t use them at the same time in the same field.

Cover crops at Brian Barker's farm at Westhorpe, near Stowmarket Picture: BRIAN BARKERCover crops at Brian Barker's farm at Westhorpe, near Stowmarket Picture: BRIAN BARKER

This then forces my hand with what pesticides I can use or normally can’t use, governing how I will have to meet different challenges through the year like potential increased pest pressure or disease carryover due to the strategies adopted in previous decisions some made two or three years previous.

However, if you make one wrong decision at any time with any of your strategies it could prove to be a hammer blow like losing your queen chess piece and pushes you back to the start or the weather will act the ‘stroppy loser’ and throw the board up into the air and all your pieces will land jumbled up and it will take time to get them all lined up again.

So as you drive around the Suffolk chess board of different crops, think about all the planning and preparations that goes into producing our raw food commodities. Some are successful and we learn by our mistakes. We enjoy our successes but I assure you it will never be ‘check mate’ for farming and food production in Suffolk as our industry is driven by a relatively small group of people dedicated to delivering year on year.

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