Archive | January 2015

More Help, Less Digital and Better Curing

I have long been aware that I needed help on the farm. I have been comparing my capacity to farm with Profit and Loss. The Profit that any business makes is the small difference between too large numbers – the costs and the income. I now believe that the time equivalent of Profit is the time that you have available to plan changes; this time is the small difference between all the hours that we have available, and the hours that we HAVE to spend doing the things that HAVE to be done – like wages, NAPSA, VAT, maintenance etc. Therefore, if a secretary or PA can just save you a few hours a day, it can make a BIG difference to those precious hours that you need for planning. I have no concrete proof (but a nasty sneaking suspicion) that, as I get older, I am less efficient and so need MORE help in order to generate those precious hours.

Then along comes an article that claims this Digital Age is ALSO making us less efficient. In a study of students, those that had an e-mail that they wanted to answer, performed up to 10 IQ points worse than those students who had answered the email before they were required to do the same complex task. I have ordered the book, but the author’s conclusion: spend at least 2 hours a day away from anything digital.

So we are all victims of the Digital Age and some of us are victims of Old age (to various degrees). Even a pretty mediocre personal assistant made a huge difference to me in 2014, and the one I have now, seems much more promising. I do seriously recommend that, if your wife is not helping out in the office and with other administrative functions, you consider employing a Personal Assistant.

I wonder how many farmers have reminded themselves of just how serious a Z factor is? On last year’s price list an L2L would have earned over K25; an L3LZ (and yes, we will always get a double hit, downgraded from 2 to 3 and THEN have the Z put on) is worth just K4. So we CANNOT afford to cure any Z style tobacco. Having reminded himself, I wonder whether that farmer has made all his staff aware of the problem too. I was fairly critical of Nick and Tim for not doing more to work out what was wrong with their fertilization. I should have looked myself in the mirror for not doing enough about the Z style. If my whole crop went Z (which it won’t) it would be like selling a 4000kg/ha crop for the equivalent of 640kg/ha – FAR less than either Nick or Tim can expect off their “poor” crops. So, I have to try to slow down my curing some more until there is no K or Z left!

When I discussed this with Richard Duckett, he was concerned that a slower cure would cost me more in weight. It is very difficult to know – it’s a close call. If I estimate my current crop as 50% L2L, 40% L3LK and 10% L3LZ and, by curing slowly I manage to improve that to 70% L2L, 25% L3LK and 5% L3LZ, I can only lose 15% of weight (otherwise I will be back to where I started) – which is not a very large margin.

So, I have done several experiments: I have identified 3 “identical” clips of my K/Z variety and cured one in my slowed down tunnel; one in my long 9 barn chongololo and one in my shorter 7 barn chongololo. Results should be out for next week’s blog. I identified 2 other “identical clips” (from the same variety) and one I jumped forward 3 days in the tunnel, and the other stayed behind to be cured slowly. The fast one has come out – and there is hardly any Z or K…just a bit of V, so POSSIBLY the slow cure is NOT the answer for this tobacco in this season. But, one swallow doesn’t make a summer (or, as someone else has said, the plural of anecdote is not data) so I will want to do more trials, before I jump to any conclusions.
We are also calling in my smokers to do a smoking trial!

Best for now,


Agronomy and Curing, finding solutions

Evaporation: I am afraid there isn’t any this week, The Thirsty Ox got at the evaporation pan and I did not have time to get it refilled etc. However, my rain witchcraft still works. I decided to irrigate my October crop on Wednesday; it actually took me until Thursday morning to re-prime my pumps and, 20 minutes later, down came a very welcome 24mm of rain. So, I have, from 10th to 16th January:
?, ?, ?, ?-1, ?, ?-24, ?.

Those of us who visited Nick and Tim’s crop on Tuesday got a nasty wake up call. Despite all our knowledge and experience tobacco can still go seriously wrong on us, given the wrong conditions. Tim suspects his borehole water might be contributing to his problems and it is certainly worth testing. (Although I had had my borehole water ‘tested’ (by UNZA) I now suspect that there was something in that borehole water that affected my float beds several years ago, and caused me to give up on them.)

As a result of that visit, I re-did the calculation that I did several year’s ago, and for every 100mm of irrigation you apply to a field, you apply 10,000 (sq meters) x 0.1 (depth of applied water in meters) x 1000 (weight of a cubic meter of water, in kgs) = 1,000,000 kgs. So, if you apply 600mm of water containing 1ppm of Boron, that is equivalent of 6kg Boron per ha, or nearly 30kg/ha of Solubor. (In looking up the B content of Solubor I found a recommendation that irrigation water should only contain 0.02ppm Boron. So, if you are sending samples for testing, check that your lab can check to ppb – parts per billion!) Boron is pretty soluble and likely to be easily leached so it is unlikely to be the cause of Tim and Nick’s problem, and very little of Nick’s crop had been irrigated.

Thanks to Ian Taylor’s plant pulling, we saw that both crops showed no sign of growth below the original seedbed roots – all the root growth was horizontal feeder roots above the seedbed plug. It suggested some sort of “chemical pan” and I hope both Nick and Tim take some soil samples from that level, to find out what is preventing the roots from growing downwards. I feel both fields are crying out for trials – I would even give Liquid Lime a go. ANYTHING to try to find out what those crops need. Tobacco IS an amazing crop and, with the right corrective treatment, they could still pull a reasonable crop.

Two sources have told me (Chris Aston and Chris Cairns) that, to avoid K and Z, I should dry my leaf at no more than 45C. Easier said than done in a continuous curing system. I am packing my tunnel with less tobacco (so able to have a slower cure), and have shut down the air to about 30% of the capacity of the fan. I still need 70C inlet temperature (in order to dry the stems) but I hope that, with less air, the temperature will drop quickly to around the 45 level. In my new 9 barn chongololo I was planning to use one extra barn for longer cures and one for longer conditioning, but I have decided to use both extra days for curing and hoping that the slower cure will reduce the K and Z. I would love to know how other continuous system farmers deal with this problem. Just as Nick and Tim have to find out what is wrong with their soil I HAVE to find out how to cure this variety.

Finally, on a different subject. The Chinese Restaurant has asked me to inform you that they can now make their own Tofu. They will be looking for several hundred kgs of soybeans once you get to harvesting this year’s crop. I had their Tofu with cucumber which even I (a boarding school food ignoramus) enjoyed very much. If you like to use Tofu in your own cooking, I am sure they will prepare a tub for you. (They also had some imported Chinese mushrooms, but the flavor didn’t do it for me; nor did they bring me any unusual dreams.)


Weather forecasts

Dear All,

Evaporation 3rd to 9th January 2015 5, 6, 5, 5, 2-2, 5, 5

I have often been scornful of the Internet Weather web sites, claiming that they all consult the same Witch Doctor. I was wrong. I noticed last week that one was forecasting 150mm, one was 40mm and one only 21mm – that is a pretty wide spread of options. And not much use at all. However I have just come across an article that claims that we are actually making progress on the accuracy – if you are interested, check out:

I had hoped to send their graph of how their accuracy has improved over the last 100 years, but could not get it to paste into this text. I clearly need more lessons….and, I am not sure of their assessment that a 3 day forecast is 97% accurate even in the Southern Hemisphere…..

I had a visit from Trevor Beaumont, a friend who grew up in Zambia, but now works as an irrigation engineer out of Jamaica. We only had a few hectic days together (I could have used a month) but I picked his brains as comprehensively as I could. He has come to the same conclusion as me, that, when you install any irrigation equipment you buy the highest spec components that you can find. If you cannot afford them you delay until you can. So those ¼ turn wafer valves are only used at the end of the line (for flushing or as a hydrant control – where they can be easily replaced). Within a pipeline (especially at the pump) he uses the old screw type gate valve. Despite paying 40c a unit for electricity (more than 10 times ours) he doesn’t use variable speed technology as he still finds it too expensive. He tries to use 1450 rpm integral pumps or submersibles, rather than separate motors coupled to pumps. He has given me some software which enables one to design the pipes and pumps a lot better than I have been doing and a mapping program. To use this mapping I need to beef up my computer (and my brain – so don’t hold your breath) but it is brilliant for comparing data from field to field or farm to farm or district to district. (His population map of Malawi – where he has been doing some work – had rural areas with population densities as high as 150 people per sq km – with an annual growth rate for the whole country of 3.1%. Their population will double in 23 yrs, ours takes 25 – both of them SCARY.)

I am still not entirely happy with my curing even though we can now settle down without the stop start of Christmas/Sunday/ New Year/Sunday and so I am hoping it will mature significantly in the rough bales or the bulks. This blog is only going to about 10 tobacco farmers, but I would love to do a survey (or TAZ should do it) and see if there is a correlation between the value and styles of tobacco obtained and the storage system used. I will do what analysis I can, but it will depend on TAZ recording my selling numbers correctly – last year we lost the plot.

Although I (and my tobacco) is LOVING this sunshine, my dams are nowhere near full and I begin to suspect that they now won’t, so it will be my turn to skip winter cereals and plant a semi-irrigated crop in late September. (I only say that to tempt the weather to prove me wrong – and fill my dams next week!)


Good Science

Dear All,

Evaporation 27 December to 2nd January -14, 1, 3, -19, -6, -19, -17, hopefully we will have some evaporation (and the sunshine that causes it) next week.

The subject of when to strip the lower leaves is receiving much publicity at the moment, but I would like to make a plea for better science. Treatments have ranged from Chesney Middleton stripping a knee high crop to just the bud – and it grew out to be big, but late. Murray and Piers are early strippers and certainly Pier’s crop has grown out well, though it is also late. (I hear reports that Murray’s is also big.) Troy stripped some early and some late, and it seems (from his experience) that the late stripped plants reached topping earlier (and presumably will need reaping earlier). But none of these treatments were done with the INTENTION of doing a comparison and so learning whether there is any difference. There are a LOT of big crops this year, so early stripping may not have been the cause of Chesney’s, Murray’s, Piers’ and Troy’s nice crops.

I was telling Mike Beckett that I get frustrated by people who believe in pseudo-science because it shows no respect for the massive amount of effort that has gone into proper science down the ages. Effort that has often cost people their lives (either because they were not aware of the dangers of radiation, or chemical poison, or because they were killed (or threatened to be killed) by the church.) Even the scientists who did not affect their health put in an enormous amount of effort, and to have their achievements compared with pseudo-science (where people make claims that cannot be repeated, by independent experiment) is to belittle that collective scientific effort.

I wrote a few weeks back that my trial on stripping (of the lower leaves) hadn’t showed any difference, but I had a nagging suspicion that I had forgotten to use the square of the radius when estimating the weight of the stalk. I cannot find my original calculations (I probably saved my new calculations on top of the old file) but, when I DO use the square of the radius, I get the stripping just after topping and two weeks before topping, to be 3% heavier than 5 weeks before topping. Now 3% does not sound like much, but on my crop it could be worth $18,000 and that is a lot of money to throw away, every year, if you are stripping at the wrong time. Obviously one hasty analysis is not sufficient information on which to base a decision, so I will do a proper analysis once this crop is finished and I can weight the stalks directly.

The other issue is the issue of delayed topping, which presumably means delayed reaping. Those people who have stripped their irrigated crops early (and delayed them) now face a bigger overlap with their October crops. I don’t know if they are early stripping their October crops in order to delay them as well? There IS a possibility that the early stripping will not delay the October crops quite as much, so that these farmers will have a bigger clash. My question is whether an October crop (say planted on the 24th October) and early stripped, will yield better than a November crop planted on say 7th November that is later stripped. I think the early stripped crop, delayed by that early stripping, may yield about the same – but there is an increased risk of disease for a crop that has been exposed to eelworm (and the real world existence away from protected seedbeds) for an extra two weeks. It may also depend on the weather. What appears to have worked this year, may not work next year.

I would also argue backwards from the October crop. I would rather have my leaf factories on the plant in hot, sunny November than in December drizzle. Stripping after topping also gives the topping team something to do on the wet days when it is too wet to apply suckeride. Therefore I would think that, in the vast majority of years, early stripping will NOT do the October crops any favours. If then we cannot strip the October crops, I would argue we shouldn’t delay our Irrigated crops, by early stripping them. Enough said until my trial results are in.

Finally (on Tobacco) I am starting up a third curing system. I would not normally expect to need to do so, but the 326 is going to ripen all at once, so I will need the extra capacity. With that system running I MIGHT be able to reap for farmers along the Sibanyati road towards the end of January/early February if anyone finds themselves with too much tobacco to handle. Bear it in mind. But these are continuous systems (chongololos) so I will need a fairly steady supply of tobacco – +/- 72000 average to 76,800max leaves per day – and plenty of warning.

Could it be three years ago that I wrote about tagging calves? I was suspicious that my people were stealing older calves and notching that number onto a newly born calf. So I switched to ear tags; I took the precaution of cutting the bottom of my tags with pinking scissors – to leave a distinctive zig-zag along the bottom edge, and I took photos of every calf. I thought this would discourage the thieves. I was wrong. I suppose, having set up a business whereby they steal calves in this way, they weren’t going to close down that easily. I have now discovered that IN THAT FIRST YEAR, they were removing the tag from the older calves and re-inserting it into the younger animals. We have just re-photographed all those animals and (so far) have found about 6 queries. Once we have gone through all 160 animals we will investigate those queries closer. Again 6 calves may not sound like a lot, but they are coming out of my PROFIT and are therefore quite a significant proportion of my cattle profit. If my people are doing it there is a better than even chance that your people are doing it too. You have been warned.

Having a shorter calving season would help (so that the older calves are not so old that they can be safely stolen when the last calves are born). I am planning on bulling for just 10 weeks this year – I think Mike said he was coming down to 8. I also noticed a drop off in my calves towards the end of the official calving season. Is this because my late calves were getting exchanged with earlier ones? Or because my bulls were getting tired? I am going to keep 4 bulls in reserve to introduce to the cows during the last 3 weeks, to see if there is a corresponding surge in calves.

It is by means of these carefully controlled, carefully planned experiments that we can make progress.

Homework: I seriously recommend reading Jeremy Grantham’s article on Cooked Goose which you can find on their website