Cessford Farm, David Thomson, Farmer

Learn about the journey of oats.

David Thomson and his father Bill run a 750 Hectare farm close to the village of Morebattle near Kelso, in the heart of the Scottish Borders. It is a mixed farm with both sheep and cattle as well as arable crops, including oats. “Having the correct balance between livestock and crops is important” says David “as it helps us keep the natural fertility in the land and maintains a farming cycle that suits the growing climate in this area. The kind of farm we have and our growing climate are the reasons we grow oats. Oats do well in the Scottish climate where longer summertime days, cooler temperatures and higher rainfall allow the grain to swell naturally to provide a bright plump oat suitable for milling”.

David takes his responsibilities for environmental management very seriously and is a member of LEAF, an organisation ‘Linking the Environment and Farming’. LEAF’s work is based on the principles of Integrated Farm Management (IFM), an established international movement advocating and implementing sustainable land management to protect the world’s fragile species. IFM embraces the whole farm, provides a flexible framework for farmers to maintain biodiversity and preserves the countryside for future generations.

In addition to being a member of LEAF, the farm is also part of the Rural Stewardship Scheme. This scheme provides assistance to help farmers adopt environmentally friendly practices and maintain and enhance particular habitats and landscape features. Through the scheme, David has undertaken a range of activities to increase the amount of wildlife on his farm. He has built ponds, fenced off waterways, planted hedges, left grass margins around every field and planted species-rich grassland. All this activity has helped to create new wildlife habitats and David has noticed many more hares, voles and owls as he goes around his farm.

In terms of the crop itself, the oats are sown in the autumn, usually during September, and the crop establishes itself before winter really sets in. Once winter is past, spring is a crucial phase as this is the period that determines how the crop will yield and how good the grain quality will be. David says: “We carefully calculate how much fertiliser we need to make the crop grow well and also balance its needs against our environmental obligations in order to preserve the wildlife diversity that we have helped to encourage”.

In late spring and early summer the ear of the oat appears from the shoot, peeping out at first before fully emerging into the open array of stalked dangling spikelets so characteristic of the oat crop. From that point onwards, the grains begin to fill and warmth and moisture are the two crucial factors here. In late July, the final stage of the crop, the oats begin to ripen and by the middle to end of August the crop has turned into a rich golden brown and is ready to harvest. At this stage David walks into the oat fields and takes a sample of the grain by pulling off a few of the crop heads and rubbing them between his hands. This produces a sample that can be tested for moisture and when it is less than 20%, the combine harvester goes in.

Harvesting is a very weather dependent activity. “A sunny day with a light breeze provides the best conditions as this lifts the morning dew and lets us get started early,” says David. “Once started, we harvest for as long as the weather will let us, which if we are fortunate, is into the early hours of the morning when the dew comes down again. When the combine is running full tilt we have two tractors and trailers leading the oats back to the grain store”. At the grain store, the oats are cleaned to take out any weed seeds and straw and they are also dried down to 15% moisture. After drying, the grain is cooled and then it is stored in a bin and set aside for John Hogarth Ltd, located only 8 miles away.

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