After what can only be described as unprecedented weather conditions over the past few months, our agronomists take stock of the situation and look to spring for salvation! Dominic Kilburn writes.
The wettest autumn and winter on record! That’s the Met Office’s verdict on conditions in the East Midlands, where AICC and Arable Alliance agronomist Andrew Wells – along with the growers he advises – continues to put a brave face on what has been an unprecedented period in the farming calendar.
Speaking in the middle of February, Andrew reckoned that only 25 per cent of his growers’ planned winter wheat area was in the ground – 20 per cent of which he considered to be not in the best of health.
“Limited progress was initially made on lighter and free-draining limestone land but nothing has gone in on the heavier, lower lying soils.
“Early drilled wheat is faring tolerably, but its roots are now sitting in very wet soil,” he explained. “In addition to that, some wheat was drilled in early February but then two major storms delivering 2.5in of rain followed within 10 days and so we just don’t know what that has done to the crop.”
To compound the issues of winter wheat, Andrew said that they have also lost some oilseed rape area since Christmas through the perfect storm of slugs, waterlogged soils and pigeons.
“There’s currently a mix of situations in terms of undrilled land,” continued Andrew. “There’s that which was cultivated last autumn which is well structured but wet; there’s land following cereals which has not been cultivated at all and then there’s land following maize and root crops which is in a complete mess.
“The latter will have to be repaired rather than planted in the spring,” he added.
“Most people have now parked the idea of getting any more winter wheat in the ground and will be moving onto crops like spring barley, spring wheat, pulses and oats.
“There will be some reasonable margins to be made from spring crops if they can be got in well, but if they are muddled in then that is simply no good. If we can’t get a sensible spring crop in the ground then perhaps it’s best to opt for a cover crop of some kind to enable a good first wheat entry. It doesn’t have to be an expensive crop and it’s better than doing nothing. The old set-aside system taught us that leaving heavy land without a crop was bad news in terms of soil structure.
“Patience and flexibility has been my mantra in recent years and it continues to be relevant. Some have run out of patience this season, which is understandable, but they must retain operational flexibility in this unpredictable weather.
“Farmers are resourceful people and they will find a way,” he stressed.
“We also shouldn’t forget that many farming businesses in the East Midlands are veg and root crop based and their priorities are not always with combinable crops.
“For sure the problems experienced by growers this winter will have big implications for the industry – agchem suppliers, machinery dealers, consultancy firms – it’s going to have a knock-on effect and we all have to share the highs and lows.”
Turning to agronomy matters, Andrew pointed out that the level and type of weeds being found in wheat this spring will of course be determined by the extent of what pre- and post-emergence herbicide applications growers manage to apply.
“We have a lot of chlorothalonil on farms and with the use-up deadline looming it will form the core component of early cereal disease management programmes.
“There is some yellow rust in wheat which is something we will have to watch, and most growers got an application of propyzamide on oilseed rape to deal with grass weeds in that crop.
“In terms of nutrition, there has been limited opportunity to apply nitrogen, sulphur or potash,” he added.
“Clearly the extreme conditions are determining what can be applied and when, but we’ve still got to pay attention to detail and get the basics right, whatever the weather throws at us.
“What wheat we do have in the ground will be worth looking after!”
On a more positive note, Andrew hinted that there was a little more interest in stewardship schemes; the newest in January 2021 will be run under UK rules, rather than European. “This means that inspection and penalty rules will be different, with Defra saying it won’t penalise you if there is a minor inaccuracy.
“It seems inspections will become more advisory by Defra to help growers rectify anything that needs changing as well as providing them with more support, rather than the onerous and penalty-laden system under the European rules.
“Also, so that those that join the Countryside Stewardship Scheme are not put at a disadvantage when the new agri-environment funding scheme ‘Environmental Land Management’ begins, growers will be allowed to leave their current scheme at the end of any year, in order to join it.
“There’s a way to go before ELM gets established but to date there are some quite positive aspects coming out of it,” concluded Andrew.
Quoting AICC agronomist Andrew Fisher from his previous appearance in Field Focus (October 2019), he said that “it’s been a very pleasing year” as he looked back at harvest results. Fast-forward five months and the world looks a very different place!
Also speaking in mid-February, Andrew said that when it comes to winter cropping he has growers with everything drilled and sprayed up, growers with nothing completed and everything in-between.
“There are some very good mid-September drilled crops in non-black-grass land but that is a minority,” he commented. “At the start of February we thought that spring had arrived early and so there was a lot of drilling activity on lighter land. But then two weekends of deluge arrived in the form of Storm Ciara followed by Storm Dennis.
“It will be touch and go if those crops survive.”
Andrew said that any thoughts of winter crop drilling have now been abandoned – incessant rain meaning there is no hope of land drying out sufficiently.
“The situation facing growers now is that they will have to wait for land to dry out if a decent seedbed is to be achieved for spring crops.
“It’s going to be a manic time for everyone but if it’s the end of March or the beginning of April before they can drill, then so be it. The seedbeds must be right for spring crops.
“One benefit of this is that harvest dates will be pushed back which will temper the natural enthusiasm there will be to drill early in the autumn after this season’s experience, and that might help a bit more with black-grass control.”
Of the positives to focus on, Andrew reckoned that there was sufficient spring barley seed available, particularly as a lot of growers will use farm saved seed. Some spring wheat will also be drilled and triticale might feature for those wanting feed for livestock.
He said that all the winter barleyin the ground had been sprayed and so growers were on top of meadow grass.
“There’s not a lot of broad-leaved weeds showing at the moment in later drilled wheat and so grass weeds will be the main target, with likely use of Atlantis/Horus to clean things up later in the spring, making up for the lack of opportunities to target those weeds earlier in the season.”
Andrew Fisher can be contacted via email: [email protected]co.uk or tel: 07836711918.