Author Archives: Alice Midmer

Drilling down into the science of soil

ARTIS provides training to growers, farmers and managers in the food supply chain to boost productivity through applying the latest agri-tech knowledge and research.  Earlier this year, they teamed up with LEAF and hosted a course at JSR Farming Ltd, a LEAF Demonstration Farm which introduced some of the farm’s soil management practices and included a farm tour led by Andy Morton, Assistant Arable Farms Manager at JSR Farms Ltd.  Here, Andy shares his thoughts on the day and how it has helped him put soil science into practice …

Over the last year, I had heard a lot about soil management from a structural and conditioning point of view. This course was different. What appealed to me was its focus on the science behind soil management – the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how’.   I thought I knew quite a bit about soil but this took me to quite another level!   It really drilled down into the specifics, looking at the soil profile in terms of bacteria, fungi, microscopic species and how different cultivation systems effect the biological diversity of the soil.

Another key focus of the course was soil organic matter. As a business, we apply a lot of organic manure and it was great to get a more in-depth perspective on what benefits this has and how to optimise its use.  For example, we learnt how carbon provides energy for the soil biology to work off and how organic manure can improve the porosity of the soil by opening up structure.

The course really made me think about how we could target our organic manure applications more accurately and start to build a better picture of how our fields are performing through, for example, mapping particular zones in fields and correlating this with percentages of soil organic matter and yield data.   I have also been thinking about our cultivations and the importance of continually questioning whether we are doing the right thing.   For example, we talked about the environmental and cost benefits of a direct drilling system to maintaining the diversity of soil biology which could, in turn, reduce cultivations as the soil is much easier to manipulate.  This ‘attention to detail’ approach is all part of LEAF’s Integrated Farm Management so it was good to focus in on specifics.

With some 90% of food produced globally being grown from the soil and two thirds of global food production lost to pests or disease, it is our job as farmers to ensure we protect, nourish and enhance this precious resource, now and for future generations.   I look forward to building on the insights, knowledge and expertise I gained from this hugely valuable training course.

LEAF provides practical guidance on sustainable soil management, based around the principles of Integrated Farm Management.  Click here to find out more.

ARTIS provide a range of training courses aimed at developing practical skills through to translating science and research into on-farm practices. Find out more here

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Improving soil biology for better yields

keith-gouldingSoil biology plays a vital role in maintaining healthy, sustainable soils and increasing it a key part of LEAF’s Integrated Farm Management.  Professor Keith Goulding, Sustainable Soils Research Fellow at Rothamsted Research, explains that providing growers with a greater depth of knowledge on the physical, chemical and biological complexity of the soil environment is key to addressing the current threats to soil sustainability.

Healthy soil is fundamental to food security, ecosystems and life.  90% of all the food we eat is grown in soil, feeding a global population that has increased to 7.3 billion people. Healthy soils provide a variety of vital ecosystem services such as nutrient cycling, water regulation, flood protection, and habitats for biodiversity.

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Soil biology is essential for healthy and sustainable soils.

The conservation and improvement of soil is among the highest priorities of any farm. Routine analysis, maintenance and improvement of physical, chemical and biological soil health helps ensure soil’s long term fertility and builds organic matter, while reducing the risk of erosion, structural degradation, compaction and associated environmental concerns, such as flooding and drought. Good soil husbandry increases yields and profitability.

Soil biology is essential for healthy and sustainable soils.  Helping growers get a better understanding of the role of soil biology in key processes vital for growth of plants such as nutrient cycling (decomposition, mineralisation, immobilisation and denitrification) is vital to the way they think about, manage and protect soils.

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The conservation and improvement of soil is an essential part of Integrated Farm Management

What is soil biology? What is soil organic matter and why is it important to soil biology? How can we measure and increase it?  These are all questions that I’ll be addressing at a one day course, run in partnership with LEAF and Artis Training.  Aimed at advanced practitioners, the course will help growers get a better understanding of the factors affecting soil biology, and the role of soil organic matter in improving soil structure, aeration, water and nutrient supply.  We will also provide practical strategies to help growers measure and maintain soil organic matter, exploring sampling and tillage.

Providing growers with a greater depth of knowledge on the physical, chemical and biological complexity of the soil environment is key to addressing the current threats to soil sustainability and the protection of this precious resource.  It’s an exciting and challenging area where farmers have a central role to play.

About the author:

Professor Keith Goulding is the Sustainable Soils Research Fellow at Rothamsted Research, a LEAF Innovation Centre. He joined Rothamsted Research in 1974 and gained his PhD at Imperial College in 1980. His research has included the supply to crops of potassium and phosphorus from the soil, ion exchange, acid rain, soil acidification and liming and nutrient, especially nitrogen, cycling.

‘Improving soil biology for better yields’ is a one day course run by LEAF and Artis Training, aimed at accomplished practitioners.  It takes place on 18th January 2017 at JSR Farms Ltd, a LEAF Demonstration Farm.   The course costs £240 (inc VAT) but LEAF Members qualify for a 15% discount making the course £204 (inc VAT). For more details and to book click here

 

 

Insights, inspiration and information exchange

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Philip Huxtable, Director of Arable Production at JSR Farms and LEAF Board member, was one of seven LEAF Demonstration Farmers who took part in the Environment Agency’s pilot Agricultural Placement Scheme earlier this year.  Here, Philip shares with us his thoughts on the scheme and its wider role in relationship building…

 

Information Flow
Knowledge generation and exchange is a key part of being a LEAF Demonstration Farmer.  It’s essential to keep things fresh and moving forward, to ensure a constant flow of experience, skills and information. This is exactly why I was keen to take part in the pilot scheme run by the Environment Agency offering agricultural placements for their officers.  A great opportunity to share what we are doing here, as well as to strengthen our working relationship with the Agency.

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IFM in practice

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Helen Dale, Environment Officer

IFM in practice
Our EA officer was Helen Dale, an experienced Environment Officer based in Lincolnshire who joined us in February and March.  The first visit was very much office based, focusing on the theory behind what we are doing here, how we plan and document our farming operations – covering nutrient management and applications as well as our traceability systems.  In March, it was all about getting out on the farm to see it all happening in practice.   Helen shadowed our slurry spreading team and spray operators, saw grass strips being drilled, potatoes being graded and joined our ploughing and fertiliser spreading guys so she could get to grips with precision farming and satellite navigation.   A very varied few days which gave her a great overview of the whole business and how we are implementing Integrated Farm Management (IFM).

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LEAF’s Integrated Farm Management

Insights, inspiration and information exchange
As farmers, it is absolutely critical that we are open to new ideas, share our experience and knowledge and keep an eye to the future.  The scheme gets a definite ‘thumbs up’ from JSR.  We were delighted with the way Helen interacted with staff, her enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge. Having the right calibre of placement is essential for staff to feel comfortable and ‘open up’.

The insights and practical knowledge that Helen picked up from her time with us, can only have had a positive impact on the support and advice she offers to other farmers in the future.

In addition, the scheme provided us, as a business, with a hugely valuable vehicle to build on our relationship with the EA.  The more we can do to enhance this partnership and to demonstrate the professionalism of our business, the better. I have always viewed the Agency as an additional resource on which to draw upon – working together with them and not against them.  It’s a bit like your bank balance – the more you can put in, the more resources and good will there is to draw upon when you need it!

The Environment Agency’s Agricultural Placement Scheme will run again in 2017. 

Delivering more sustainable farming through knowledge generation and exchange

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Alice Midmer, LEAF IFM Manager

Alice Midmer, LEAF’s IFM Manager recently returned from Scotland, where we held our 25th anniversary Scotland dinner for members and supporters and ran a Farmer Technical Day in partnership with The James Hutton Institute.   Here, Alice reflects on the events and shares her highlights.  

LEAF has a strong and vibrant presence in Scotland with four Demonstration Farms, two Innovation Centres and many LEAF Members. We are very proud of the partnerships we have developed and are determined to build on our activities across the border to strengthen LEAF’s reach, increase awareness and uptake of Integrated Farm Management as well champion public understanding and engagement in sustainable farming.

It was a privilege to meet with Scottish Demonstration Farmers and supporters at our 25th anniversary dinner which we held prior to the Farmer Technical Event.  It was a great opportunity to meet socially with so many supporters across the region, share experiences and map out priorities for LEAF’s next 25 years.  Professor Colin Campbell, Chief Executive of the James Hutton Institute, which was LEAF’s first Innovation Centre, gave an engaging overview of the role of JHI in pushing forward the boundaries of sustainable farming, their commitment to ensuring cutting edge research reaches out to farmers and how their role as a LEAF Innovation Centre plays a central role in making this happen.  This led on to a lively discussion about what sustainable farming means in practice, the challenges facing farmers and the potential of Integrated Farm Management to address them.  It was a great evening full of laughter, friendship and lots of ideas on how we can build on our work in Scotland.

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IFM in practice at our Technical Day for Farmers held in partnership with LEAF Innovation Centre, the James Hutton Institute

The sun shone brightly the next day for our Farmer Technical Day at JHI, where we were joined by SRUC and SoilEssentials who work closely with JHI on a range of research projects and wider work .  The day had a very practical focus with guided tours providing farmers with a great opportunity to talk directly to researchers at each stop.  The day covered a broad range of topics from cover crops, Integrated Pest Management, Precision Farming, Eco-engineering through to improving phosphorus use and whole-system models and decision aids.  One of the stops on the tour was run by LEAF Members, SoilEssentials who talked about how precision farming data can be used to lower environmental impact and increase profits.  It was also interesting to hear Ewen Mullins, from Teagasc, the Irish Agricultural and Food Development Authority talk about the environmental impact of GM blight-tolerant potatoes.  Other highlights were LEAF Demonstration Farmer, Edward Baxter providing a fascinating overview of his PhD field headland research and JHI’s Farms Director, Euan Caldwell explaining about his wonderful Magic Margins.

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Caroline Drummond, LEAF Chief Executive and Euan Caldwell, Head of Farms, James Hutton Institute show IFM in action at Farmer Technical Day

As LEAF embarks on its next 25 years, we are excited about the potential to grow our activities in Scotland. Our new five-year strategy looks to identify partnerships with the food, farming, environment, health and education sectors to drive forward our mission of ‘a world that is farming, eating and living sustainably.’

Knowledge generation and exchange is at the heart of IFM.  It is events like this that bring farmers and researchers together to inspire and learn from each other that will progress the development and uptake of more sustainable farming.   Our thanks to everyone who was involved in the day.

Magic Margins

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Euan Caldwell, Head of Farms, James Hutton Institute

Next week we will be holding a Technical Day for farmers in partnership with one of our leading Scottish LEAF Innovation Centres, The James Hutton Institute. The event includes guided tours and indoor displays covering a diverse range of Integrated Farm Management topics such as cover crops, Integrated Pest Management, precision farming and sustainable cropping.  Ahead of the event, Euan Caldwell, Head of Farms at JHI, tells us more about one of the areas being featured – ‘magic margins.’

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The Magic of Margins

Over the last year, we have been busy sowing some new field margins at Mylnefield and Balruddery Farms. Like our existing buffer strips (habitat margins next to water courses), beetle banks and field margins, these new field margins are part of what are now termed Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs). All arable farms in Scotland have to commit at least 5% of their total arable area to EFA. Like many LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming) Innovation Centres and  Demonstration Farms, we only had to make small adjustments to the habitat and wildlife corridors we had already created around our farms, to meet our new obligations.

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Blair McKenzie’s Tramline Run-off Experiment

Some of our field margins have been established in what could look like potato drills. These are innovative field margins described by some of our visiting farmers as ‘magic margins’. The initial inspiration for developing our ‘magic margins’ came about through our involvement in Blair McKenzie’s Tramline Run-off Experiment which the James Hutton Institute and others undertook in 2011-12 at Balruddery Farm.

It was an amazing project that opened my eyes to how a relatively shallow slope could generate significant water run-off (and nutrient loss) and to see how fragile and susceptible to erosion our sandy loam soils really were.

Well established Magic Margins

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LEAF’s IFM – working to deliver more sustainable food and farming

We have used the same drills and tied ridges to effectively create a barrier at the bottom of a sloping field. There is also no reason that this same effective field margin couldn’t be used as a beetle bank mid-way down a field and again at the bottom to further reduce the momentum of run-off and erosion. The mini dams the Tied Ridger has created have captured the water at the point at which it has reached the margin, thereby preventing it from running to the bottom of the slope and then pooling at the single lowest point in the field. Once properly established, they look like every other EFA field margins but with hidden added value.

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Magic Margins are an innovative example of IFM working in practice

Other advantages we have seen is that the surface area of this field margin is greater than conventional field margins which helps promote the rate of evaporation. The margins have also been sown with wild grass and bird seed mixes providing valuable wildlife habitat (as part of our Ecological Focus Area). They also help persuade our farm and science staff that driving on our field margins would be a very unforgiving mistake and, in turn, this helps me protect our year round obligation to our Ecological Focus Areas.

In summary, our Magic Margins are an innovative example of IFM working in practice helping to deliver economic, environmental and social benefits to the farm.

The JHI and LEAF Technical Day on the 9th June is being held as part of LEAF’s 25th Anniversary.  It will provide a taster of some of the IFM research being carried out at JHI and feature a range of practical examples of how they can work on farmer’s own businesses. Click here for more details and to book. To join in the conversation before, during and after the event @JamesHuttonInst #LEAFTechDay. We look forward to seeing you!

IFM: A Framework for the Future

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Alice Midmer, LEAF IFM Manager

For the last 25 years, LEAF has been at the forefront of developing and delivering Integrated Farm Management (IFM). Last week, we held our first IFM conference which highlighted some of the latest research and thinking into IFM and its practical applications.

Here, Alice Midmer, LEAF’s IFM Manager, reports on highlights from the day and reflects on what the key challenges will be for Integrated Farm Management as LEAF embarks on its next 25 years.

LEAF's Integrated Farm Management

LEAF’s Integrated Farm Management

Knowledge generation and exchange

Farming systems are dynamic. They are continually adapting to ecological, environmental and social conditions, while achieving greater production and resource-use efficiency by the application of science and technology. Key to driving forward change and continual improvement is sound science firmly rooted in practical application out in the field.   Our network of Demonstration Farms and Innovation Centres make this happen.

Currently we have eight Innovation Centres, each offering unique insights into a particular area of IFM, covering, for example, sustainable crop production systems, dairy management, grassland livestock systems, energy efficiency, water friendly farming and biodiversity conservation. This research feeds into our Demonstration Farmers, which in turn, is shared amongst the wider farming community. This continual cycle of knowledge generation and exchange ensures IFM remains reactive, flexible and responsive.

Innovations and Inspiration

Phytobacs (or biobeds) helping to reduce environmental impact of agriculture

Biobeds helping to reduce environmental impact of agriculture

It was a privilege last week to bring together our Innovation Centres and Demonstration Farms to consider how IFM has developed, highlight the research work being carried out and hear from three of our Demonstration Farmers about how they make IFM work on their own businesses.

From our Innovation Centres we heard how LED lights could be used in the glasshouse sector to provide the ultimate growing conditions to maximise growth, plant quality, nutritional value and help to eliminate pesticide use.   We were told how drones are increasingly being used to take aerial pictures of crops to monitor and map areas using true colour, multispectral and thermal images, with data being used to improve yields. We learnt how biobeds and phytobacs could help to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, the benefits of cover crops to farmers as well as wildlife and about selective dry cow therapy to help treat cows most at risk of mastitis. It provided a fascinating overview of the scale and diversity of research being undertaken and a reminder of the scope of IFM and its application across all farm sectors.

Making IFM work in practice

Making IFM work under glass

Making IFM work under glass

How farmers who are working with IFM at the sharp end are making these innovations work in practice was provided by three of our Demonstration Farmers.   Richard Kooijman, Production Manager at Eric Wall Ltd, one of the largest tomato nurseries in the UK highlighted how the principles of IFM help to guide many of the day to day management decisions including Integrated Pest Management strategies to control fungal problems, use of thermal screens to reduce carbon emissions and how the implementation of progressive staff incentives and flexible hours contracts are key to growing the business.

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Driving forward more sustainable soil management through IFM

Chris Baylis, Head of Farming and Estate Manager at Sir Richard Sutton Ltd in Lincolnshire and Berkshire described how the use of direct drilling, combined strip tillage, minimal cultivations and rotational ploughing were all helping to drive forward the estates determination to increase its environmental profile, reduce energy consumption and improve soil health.

The attention to detail demanded by an Integrated Farm Management approach was highlighted by John Renner, owner of North Belshill and Amerside Hill Farm in Northumberland and LEAF Marque producer. He told us about tailoring specific management techniques to improve soil management and fertility and enhance biodiversity, through for example, non-inversion tillage techniques, creation of no nitrogen and limited grazing areas, good record keeping, grass margins and sensitive hedge management.

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LEAF Demonstration network ensures continuing evolution of IFM

LEAF Demonstration network ensures continuing evolution of IFM

LEAF is at an exciting and important juncture.   As we look ahead and build on our core objectives and vision, it is clear that IFM offers farmers a powerful framework to meet challenges of population growth, climatic pressures and an increasingly demanding public. One of the main messages coming out of our first IFM conference was that ensuring the practices and developments of IFM continue to evolve, will call for joined-up research that takes an ecological approach, responds to people’s real needs and respects farmers’ know-how.

There are huge challenges ahead for farmers, but with the expertise, knowledge and experience within LEAF’s Demonstration network, the future looks full of potential.

Click here to see photographs from the conference.

For more information on the individual talks and research look out for the IFM bulletin going out to members next week.

Putting research into action

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Melanie Wright, Grants and KEC Support Officer, at North Wyke

Knowledge exchange is key to delivering more sustainable farming.   Here Melanie Wright, Grants and KEC Support Officer, at the North Wyke site of Rothamsted Research, our latest Innovation Centre, tells us more about how they are communicating research and new technologies to farmers.

The highly successful NFU ‘Grasslands in Profile’ event hosted here at Rothamsted Research North Wyke last month provided the ideal occasion at which to launch North Wyke as the newest member of LEAF’s network of Innovation Centres.

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Driving forward more sustainable farming: on farm events at North Wyke enable researchers, technicians and students to present their research

Focussing on grassland soils, this joint event formed part of the NFU’s programme of activities for the international Year of Soils. Attracting over 70 attendees, the event was an excellent opportunity for researchers, technicians and students here at North Wyke to present their research and introduce visitors to the North Wyke Farm Platform Capability, the world’s most highly instrumented grassland livestock farm.

Despite torrential downpours throughout the morning, the Devon weather was on our side in the afternoon and visitors were treated to a tour of the farm platform with the sun streaming over Dartmoor in the distance. Robert Orr, Manager of the Farm Platform, was stationed in a windy spot at the top of the site from where he provided visitors with an overview of the farm platform and the three grassland systems being trialled on it.

Andy Retter, Instrument Technician on the Farm Platform, guided groups around through the working of one of the 15 flume labs located on the Platform which measure run off from the fields as well as a range of chemical and physical measures of water quality.

For the last stop on the tour Dr Rob Dunn introduced visitors to the research undertaken on the platform to measure greenhouse gas emissions from grasslands. Using state of the art LICOR chambers, researchers at North Wyke are measuring greenhouse gas emissions during grazing and following ploughing and re-seeding events to quantify the true impact of grassland livestock production on greenhouse gas emissions.

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The BBSRC supported Farm Platform National Capability at North Wyke is at the cutting edge of research into sustainable grazing livestock systems

The BBSRC supported Farm Platform National Capability at North Wyke is at the cutting edge of research into sustainable grazing livestock systems. However, we recognise that impact will only be achieved through the dissemination of this research to the farming community. The enrolement of the North Wyke site as a LEAF Innovation Centre and events such as ‘Grasslands in profile’ are part of our growing activities to aid the transfer of knowledge to our stakeholders to put research into action.

North Wyke launched as LIC

As a LEAF Innovation Centre, North Wyke will play a key role in showcasing sustainable farming methods, particularly in the area of grassland systems.

Looking to the future North Wyke will undertake an active programme of events that will promote the principles of sustainable agriculture and Integrated Farm Management (IFM) and promote the research undertaken here to identify the most sustainable means of rearing pasture-based livestock.

In 2016, North Wyke will be working closely with the newly appointment farming representatives on its Research Advisory Group to ensure that the research undertaken at North Wyke will deliver the maximum impact for the farming sector. We will be running a number of farm tours and working with partners including LEAF to host events to further share the research and knowledge coming out of our work at North Wyke.

Bottoms-Up: Innovative Farmers and Speak Out

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Alice Midmer, LEAF Projects Coordinator

Promoting and enabling farmers that are Innovative and Communicative are two big details that form part of LEAF’s ‘bottom-up’ approach to delivering more sustainable farming.  LEAF’s Projects Coordinator, Alice Midmer explains more …  

If you have heard Caroline Drummond speak you may well have a) seen the photo below (it’s her favourite) and b) will hopefully remember it as a visual representation that, here at LEAF, we love a bottom-up approach! But what does this really mean?

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LEAF’s ‘bottoms up’ approach to delivering sustainable farming

In theory, and according to all-knowing Google, the definition of a bottom-up approach is as follows: ‘The bottom-up of an approach to a problem is one that begins with details and works up to the highest conceptual level.’

If we take ‘more sustainable farming’ as our ‘highest conceptual level’ then two of the most recent projects I have been working on are fantastic examples of ‘the details’.

The first is our involvement with Innovative Farmers. We are really pleased to be partners in the new and exciting Innovative Farmers programme. Many of the best ideas come from farmers who trial, test and analyse on their own farms. We know that LEAF farmers are often at the very cutting edge of this technical development and we are keen that these results are captured and harnessed to enable others to benefit and the industry as a whole to move forward.

Innovative Farmers is a not-for-profit network that matches farmer groups with some of the UK’s best research teams. It provides professional support, a web portal where groups share their learning, and access to a dedicated research fund. At the heart of the network are ‘field labs’, where farmers meet in small groups to test and develop new ways of tackling a shared problem or opportunity. Until 15th December, there is an early bird discount to join and following this, all LEAF members will continue to receive a discounted membership. Click here to register as a LEAF member.

Innovative FarmersInnovative Farmers is an exciting network and a great opportunity to join-up and optimise the output from research happening all over the country. Farmer led research and learning is not new however, and has been at the heart of LEAF since its inception, through the LEAF Demonstration Farm network. As well as innovation and Integrated Farm Management, good communication skills are crucial to the LEAF Demonstration Farm network. In this vein, LEAF developed the Speak Out communications training package a number of years ago to help develop and enhance farmers’ communication skills.

This autumn, Speak Out was back. The sessions saw both new and established LEAF Demonstration Farmers gather in the sunny cart shed at LEAF Demonstration Farm, Crowmarsh Battle Farms for a refresher training day with the ever enthusiastic Susie Emmett of Green Shoots Productions Ltd.

Good communication is imperative and innovative farmers need to have all the tools in the box to spread their messages to other farmers, the industry and consumers alike.

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LEAF’s Speak Out training: developing and enhancing farmers communication skills

Farmers and representatives from nine different LEAF Demonstration Farms took part in a fantastic day that ranged from ‘planning a presentation that packs a punch’ to ‘movie making with messages that matter’. ‘Making the most of your online presence’, ‘harnessing the power of social media’ and ‘taking farm visits to the next level’ were also covered in a jam packed day.

Attendees included established LEAF Demonstration Farmers, keen to refresh their skills, pick up tips from other farmers as well as learn more about newer and increasingly important avenues of communication. Newer recruits at larger LEAF Demonstration Farms also attended to develop skills to help them better communicate their farm’s message to the wider community.

All appreciated the importance of staying engaged and up-to date with different communication methods and how and why to make best use of them. From my point of view, any opportunity of getting LEAF Demonstration Farmers together always makes for an inspiring day and this was no exception.

With this in mind, part of LEAF’s contribution to the Innovative Farmers programme will be Speak Out training. The partners recognise that effective communication from the coordinators and researchers will be an important component of the success of Innovative Farmers. Ready communication from the farmers involved along with a willingness to share challenges and problems will ensure the programme contributes to the progress of the industry as a whole.

So there you have it: Promoting and enabling farmers that are Innovative and Communicative are two big details that form part of LEAF’s bottom-up approach to delivering more sustainable farming.

Bats and Owls at Balruddery

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Euan Caldwell, Head of Farms, Field and Glasshouse Facilities at the James Hutton Institute

The James Hutton Institute is a LEAF Innovation Centre that is committed to promoting and developing Integrated Farm Management at their sites in Scotland. Euan Caldwell is Head of Farms, Field and Glasshouse Facilities and here he tells us a bit more about the bats and owls that have taken up residence at the Balruddery Site near Perth.

Here at Balruddery we installed a number of bat boxes in 2009 as mitigation for the lost bat roosts in the old byre (the old stone steading at Balruddery was knocked down in 2009). Originally 20 boxes were installed – 5 each of four types. We lost one last winter when it was blown down and destroyed. Last year we moved three boxes to the gully near Balruddery Den – these were ones which had never been used in their original locations.

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Bat boxes are checked twice a day

The bat boxes are checked twice annually by David Dodd from David Dodds Associated who is licensed to do so. David checks the boxes to try to identify droppings to establish whether the boxes are in use and clear them of any debris: droppings, old birds’ nests etc. so that the boxes remain usable. To date we have found both Common and Soprano Pipistrelle bats in the boxes. The byre was also used by a shyer species: Natterer’s Bats and I’m hopeful they may move into the boxes eventually.

Bats at Balruddery

Both Common and Soprano Pipistrelle bats have taken up residence at the James Hutton Institute’s Balruddery Site near Perth

The boxes are usually used through the summer by individual male bats, waiting for the autumn breeding season. The females spend the summer in large maternity groups, rearing their young. In the autumn the males set up territories around small roosts and call females, gathering a “harem” of females. We often find these groups in the boxes in autumn. Last autumn there was evidence of a lot of activity in one of the boxes and David suggested it may have been used as a maternity roost, though it’s hard to be sure.

The Tawny Owl is one of bats’ main predators and is capable of taking one in flight in complete darkness. We have had Tawny Owls nesting for the last three years at Balruddery Farm in a nest box we put up ourselves on the eastern fringes of the farm. In years one and two there were two owlets and it was very entertaining to watch them “branch” at dusk, a term used to describe their early attempts at using their wings (jumping from branch to branch) and being fed by the adults who could be seen roosting in a nearby tree during the day.

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This year there was only one owlet who was particularly adventurous!

This year there was only one owlet who was particularly adventurous! Owlets regularly fall / glide out of their trees during the “branching” stage but they usually manage quite easily to clamber back up into the tree and I have seen this happen several times. However, as this year’s baby was an only child, it seemed to have no incentive to return to the same tree it started from and I struggled to keep up with its movements. I became very familiar with the little squeaks that it made as dusk approached and found it in random trees, in a hedge row, crouching on top of a dyke and once on the main road! But I lost track of it before it properly fledged. It was well attended by the parents and was well fed. It grew at a faster rate than the owlets from previous years and I have no doubt that it made it to adult hood

Our Owls are very entertaining to watch but their presence is also a healthy sign that the habitats we have helped to create, our hedge rows, field margins and beetle banks are sustaining a healthy and productive food chain that enables a top predator like a Tawny Owl to make its home at Balruddery.