Over the Farmers Hedge – Bringing-in the harvest; what is involved

Despite being on the edge of one of the most high-tech cities in Europe, Grantchester is still a rural village, surrounded by farmland that is actively cultivated; and long may that continue. The farming year reaches its peak with the harvest; an intense four-month period from July to October, 7 days a week. 

The two key farms in the village are Lacies Farm and Manor Farm, although Trumpington Farm Company also farms Dumpling Farm towards Coton (owned by Corpus Christi College), the Coton Countryside Reserve (run by the charity Cambridge Past, Present & Future), the University’s farms in Newnham, Girton, Madingley and up into Lolworth. To the south the Cambridge site reaches as far as Great Shelford and Hauxton and to the west, Lordsbridge and Manor Farm in Barton.

Crop type, rotation, and timetable

About two-thirds is wheat and one-third is oilseed rape and other break crops like sugar beet and peas. The fields generally have two years of wheat followed by one of break crop, usually rape although diseases and restrictions on neonicotinoids is putting pressure on rape growing. Sugar beet and peas prefer light soil so our predominantly heavy clay restricts crop choices.

When we talk about ‘the harvest’ the bulk of that work is bringing-in the wheat, but of course the rape is harvested 3 weeks earlier.  In an average year the end of July would be the rape harvest, mid August to September the wheat harvest, September and October for cultivation and drilling (see below).

This year’s harvest is early, and started on Sunday 27th July, around 2-3 weeks earlier than average due to the good amount of sunshine during spring and summer with sufficient intermittent rain.

It’s all about moisture

Timing for wheat harvest is all about moisture. Combining can start as soon as the dew has started to evaporate and the air is dry, perhaps at 9 or 10 o’clock in the morning, and it can continue late into the evening or even the night, sometimes past midnight and into the early hours, depending when the dew begins to settle and moisten the crop again.

Once off the fields, grain is stored in one of the 6 huge barns at Cantelupe Farm.  The floor of the barns has tiny holes and air is continually blown through the holes and up through the piles of wheat while corkscrew-like stirrers mix the wheat to aerate it.  If left moist and un-stirred, the wheat would start to sprout, begin to mould and attract pests, affecting its saleable value. As trading is by the tonne, grain buyers charge penalties for grain moisture over a fixed threshold.

Machinery and people

TFC has two combines, which will be used for about five years before they will be replaced.  They have sophisticated GPS and computer screens to monitor the harvest, as well as climate control. If two combines are working the same field, they will be supported by four tractors & trailers going back and forth to the grain barns at Cantelupe.

The combine drivers are Matt Duke, who lives at Cantelupe, and Peter Wing, who lives on site at our Thorney Farm to the north of Peterborough. The tractor drivers are David Marson, who, like Peter, has worked on the farm for about 30 years and lives at Cantelupe and Steve Matthews, who lives in Trumpington.  Each year a ‘harvest student’ is hired and this year Ellie Knott, daughter of General Manager David, is doing her third year in the job.

At the Cantelupe grain stores a key team member, the weighbridge operater, is Andy Cooper from Trumpington (usually the Estate Carpenter) who weighs trailers in and out, takes a sample of every trailer load to measure the ‘specific weight’ of the grain (to determine grain size) and take a moisture reading. Once the trailer load is tipped Andy drives the JCB grain dozer to push the grain fully into place in the stores. He is then back to complete the traceability paperwork for that load before the next one arrives.

Where does it go?

There are two sorts of wheat: ‘milling wheat’ is turned into flour for human consumption, and ‘feed wheat’ goes to animal food. TFC grows both. Some of the high quality milling wheat is grown under a direct contract with the bakers Warburtons, and goes to them for bread-making. The rest is sold via grain merchants and may be used in the UK or sold overseas.

Some wheat is ‘sold forward’ for a specific month before it is even harvested and the rest is sold later in the year as market prices fluctuate. Wheat is a commodity with a market price that moves up and down daily, so there is skill and judgement required by the management in deciding when exactly to sell.

Cultivating and drilling

The moment the harvest is over, cultivating starts with Charlie Carpenter who lives in Trumpington and Gordon Carson from Grantchester. Some fields are ploughed (i.e. the top soil is turned right over), others just need a lighter going-over with disc harrows or large rake-like machinery. TFC doesn’t remove the straw, but instead cultivaties it back in, which returns nutrients to the soil.

The reason for cultivating quickly is to encourage weeds to germinate and grow. A dose of herbicide is then applied to kill weeds off before the seedbed is ready for drilling. Ideally, that’s all done and finished by October.

Drilling is another word for planting, when the seeds for next year’s crop are ‘drilled’ into the soil: the machine creates little furrows, plants the seeds, and then covers up the furrows, all in one action.

Precision Farming

The entry point of precision farming is the creation of constant, straight tram lines for every field which are recorded and replicated by a pinpoint accurate GPS guidance system. That guidance system operates on the tractor’s auto pilot systems and manages accurate placement of fertilisers and pesticides with no overlapping at all. The obvious benefits are the reduction in the use of fertilisers and pesticides, no harmful overdosing and accurate maintenance of field margins and stewardship strips.

The deeper level of precision farming involves satellite imaging and soil MRI scanning of fields to provide variable rate nutrient applications and seed placement. Targeted nutrient replacement allows those bits of the field that can be most productive to grow well and leaves nature to run its course on poorer soils. Our state of the art combines use similar satellite imaging and measurements to show which parts of the field produced the most grain. (See picture) We can then know each field better and understand the reasons for variation which might include poor drainage, rabbit or pigeon damage, pylon siting or uncontrollable weed patches and address those we can. In the end it is about keeping the land healthy and productive. These sophisticated tools take some of the guesswork out of that process.

When it’s all over

At the end there is a harvest celebration for all the staff, plus wives, sometimes in a pub in the village, or a day at the Races.                                                                       

Comments are closed.