The past has lessons for us all when it comes to securing our farming future, says Clodhopper.
My elders constantly tell me that farming has to look to the past to move forward and something has to change. I don’t want to go back down memory lane but it does make you wonder what farming was once like – and what it has become.
This was thrown into sharp relief in late February when I saw on my travels a tractor pulling what can only be described as a rake-like machine. It was rear-mounted with a simple single blade about 6m long.
The machine was effectively tractor hoeing wheat – the purpose being to destroy blackgrass that had survived the pre- and post-emergence sprays. The wheat looked as if it was drilled in rows about 10 inches apart – so the hoe could work on GPS steering.
Wide and narrow
I took a closer look over the hedge when the coast was clear. Then I noticed that the drill hadn’t been set correctly, so some rows were wide and others narrow. This meant manual steering was the only option, which ruled out any operator under the age of 40.
The results meant some wheat plants were covered up and the blackgrass was partially disturbed – although most of it was still attached by the root. If this operation had been done in drying conditions some of the blackgrass may have been killed.
But the wheat plant count was somewhat reduced – and it remains to be seen how much blackgrass survives. I was later told that the idea is to scalp the blackgrass so it stunts the growth and keeps the weed in the bottom of the wheat crop, preventing it from seeding.
My elders tell me this was common practice in wheat and beans in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But with the modern hoe costing upwards of £10,000 is it still a viable option? Looking at the field a month on, it seems the blackgrass will still rule the roost.
Costs and benefits
The other great innovation during the late 1950s was, of course, the Triple-D tractor, produced by Ernest Doe & Sons of Ulting, Essex. Capable of pulling a five-furrow Ransomes plough, it cost about £1950 and 289 units were built between 1958 and 1964.
I have tried to work out how affordable that would have been – by comparing prices then and now for farm machinery, wheat, houses and cars. Being barely old enough to remember that far back I have to rely on my elders again.
In the early 1960s, a Ford Anglia car would set you back about £600. Nobody could agree on the average house price but land was worth about £200/acre. Wheat, as far as i can understand, was £40-50/tonne.
So a big question must be asked: With considerably more than 104hp needed to pull a five-furrow plough and the average tractor now costing £150,000, which year is best when land values today stand at about £8000/acre?
Without going into too much detail, it is clear to me that wheat prices today should be much higher and tractor prices lower. And that is before we get embroiled in a conversation about modern machinery being far too heavy.
No wonder soil health and land drainage appear to be suffering. You don’t have to look too far these days to see standing water in fields during winter because of soil compaction or damaged drains.
If older farms could cope with smaller machines, why does this not apply today? Larger and fewer farms farming the same amount of land, I guess – and the need to finish a field almost before you start.
Is there really no room for lighter tractors and equipment in the modern age? After all, if the need to control blackgrass – including the move to spring cropping – all points to yesteryear. So why not the machinery too?