Arable News

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Field Focus

East or West – the challenges of winter crop drilling set by the wet autumn continue for both of our Field Focus agronomists. Dominic Kilburn writes.


East Midlands-based agronomist Christina Scarborough said that there had been almost non-stop rain in the region since September, causing havoc with winter cereals drilling programmes.

Growers, she pointed out, were waiting to start winter cereal drilling in earnest in mid- to late September but rain put paid to any progress.

“At best, five per cent of winter cereals are drilled up and only on the lighter, free-draining areas,” said Christina on the 6th November.

“Typically by now 80 per cent of crops would be in the ground,” she added.

She reckoned that a minimum of two to three weeks’ dry weather was required just for growers to be able to get on the land, much of which remains as stubble.

“If we are lucky and get some good conditions, we can keep drilling until the end of November but clearly there will be a hit on yields,” she pointed out.

However, the need for drier weather extended beyond achieving a reasonable seedbed and getting the crop in the ground, pointed out Christina, who said that being able to get on the land was equally important for successful herbicide applications. “In the past we’ve seen what can happen when autumn herbicide programmes can’t be applied sufficiently and it can be disastrous in terms of weed control,” she stressed.

One of the only upsides to the dismal autumn is that black-grass germination has been phenomenal with a lot sprayed off in a break in the weather between the end of September and mid-October. That said, since then, more had chitted and will also have to be sprayed, she noted.

According to Christina, around 50 per cent of oilseed rape crops had survived the autumn following flea beetle damage, however now they are being “hammered” by slugs, she said.

“You’d struggle to get on the land and spread slug pellets with a quad bike at the moment and it is so wet that the moisture would dissolve the pellets immediately.” 

Growers’ thoughts are inevitably turning to alternative choices for land that can’t be drilled in an area where, on the heaviest soils, spring crops are rarely grown. “Spring barley will inevitably be the key choice with growers looking to spray off black-grass, cultivate and drill in the early spring as soon as conditions allow.

“Growers may opt for leaving some fields fallow but that’s not ideal; it delivers no income and the land needs a crop to produce root mass and take moisture out of the soil,”
said Christina.

 “Of course, the way things are, spring seed could be in very short supply this season and anyone with yet unsold grain in the barn might want to think about hanging onto it for spring drilling,” she added.

What has been possible to harvest in terms of maize has been done so on the lighter land, although mud on the roads from the poor field conditions has not gone down well with the public. “It’s a constant problem and growers are doing their best to keep the roads clear in very difficult circumstances.

“The land itself is getting compacted and rutted – and despite these challenges it’s important to be mindful of the potential damage that could be done to soils this autumn and a common sense approach is needed, particularly when it comes to redressing the problems when the land is fit to work again.

“Growers will be thinking of spraying rape for example but if land drains are flowing should they be doing this? I know operations on the farm have to be done, but don’t forget the basics,” she warned.

Christina Scarborough can be contacted via 07969 507082 or [email protected]


Likewise, in the west of the country, unsettled weather has dominated the autumn however AICC Herefordshire-based Hillhampton Technical Services agronomist, Antony Wade, reckoned that growers in the region are further ahead than most in terms of winter cereals drilling.

Reasonable weather in September allowed drilling to get underway early on and now 50–60 per cent of crops have been drilled, including winter barley – most of which was completed by the end of October.

“In other areas where grass weeds are more problematic they say don’t drill if you can’t spray, but over here growers can afford a slightly different attitude and so drill when they can,” commented Antony, also speaking on the 6th November.

“That said, following more rain, some fields are saturated and recently drilled crops have yet to emerge and so uncertainty remains as to if they will establish or not,” he pointed out.

“We will take the opportunities where we can and re-drill where we have to this side of Christmas, or even look to drilling some in the early spring,” he added.

Interestingly, although ploughing is out of favour with many, almost all wheat drilling in the past three weeks has been achieved with a plough and combi drill establishment system, achieving reasonable seedbeds in adverse conditions.

Despite oilseed rape establishment proving a challenge this autumn, Antony thought that around 80 per cent of crops drilled will survive.

“It has been difficult. Flea beetle damage has continued throughout the autumn and it is as bad as we’ve ever had it.

“Crops have been sprayed once or twice but if the sprays have no effect then you know the flea beetle are resistant and you just have to let the crops take their chance.

“We don’t know to what extent the larval damage is as yet and so we’ll have to make a decision on affected crops, with the aim to put something else in instead when we get an opportunity.

“Winter oats drilled in the spring could well be a popular option to replace undrilled land or where crops have been lost, and is certainly an option for land originally planned for rape,” said Antony.

“Whatever is planned for the spring, the way this season is shaping up there is likely to be an impact on cash flows and budgets and so growers need to be mindful of what they spend over the coming months,” he concluded. 

 Antony can be contacted on 07973 243590 or on Twitter: @HTSagronomy. 

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