With the last of the winter crops going in the ground, growers will shortly be turning their thoughts to spring cropping and the options available. Here, Heather Briggs focuses on alternative crops to spring barley.
Black-grass control and the need to extend rotations to comply with the three-crop rule are driving increasing interest in spring cropping in the east of the country where Farmacy agronomist Ben Pledger is based. And, working the ground in the autumn when the soil is dry helps get the best results from spring cropping, he suggests.
“Spring planting gives you the chance to wait for several flushes of black-grass in the autumn and late winter, which can be treated with glyphosate,” he says.
Growers taking this option also benefit from spreading the workload. “Profitability is key and, in the east, sugar beet, with yields of 80–90t/ha in a good year, has been a popular crop, but there is the potential for severe yield loss from virus yellows going forward with the loss of neonicotinoid seed treatments.”
Aphids can make serious inroads on crop yield if growers are unable to keep on top of them, he adds.
“With the loss of these seed treatments for sugar beet, attention to detail in pest monitoring and insecticide application when thresholds are reached will become crucial during the first 12 weeks after drilling.”
The Hertfordshire-based agronomist is also concerned about the social and environmental impact that increased use of insecticides may bring.
“For black-grass control in sugar beet, there is the option of using the post-emergence graminicide Centurion Max (Clethodim); but with label restrictions related to this product, insecticide application at the correct timing may not be possible, potentially leaving the door open for aphids and consequently the infection of virus yellows.”
Although not as competitive against black-grass as spring barley, spring wheat is another good prospect, he comments.
“Grown under the right conditions, it can make milling quality. While yields are, of course, lower than winter wheat, there are fewer inputs, so gross margin per tonne can be in the same order.”
Spring oats have enjoyed something of a resurgence in the past few years, which may partly be led by the growing popularity of the variety WPB Elyann, which has better hullability, over other spring varieties, bringing its favour with processors near to that of the winter oat variety Mascani.
“Agronomically, it is less competitive against black-grass than spring barley, but it is another low-input cereal and good quality crops are rewarded with good returns.
“However, in a dry year the specific weight may be low,” he adds.
“To get the best results, I would suggest a primary cultivation to the land while dry in the autumn so you have the base for a good seedbed. Secondary cultivations on lighter land (if needed) would ideally be done in the spring before the weather starts to really dry up. Drilling into this will help conserve valuable soil moisture allowing the plants to get their roots down so they can effectively access both moisture and nutrients, rather than working the land just in front of the drill, potentially leading to large scale moisture loss from the soil.”
Although pulse crop yields around the country varied significantly in 2018, pea quality has generally been good – and, as always, there are bean growers who will have done exceptionally well out of the crop this year, says PGRO chief executive Roger Vickers.
All of the benefits pulses offer in terms of the environment, sustainable agricultural practices, rotation management and crop and soil health improvement are as strong as ever, hence there is no reason to judge pulses any differently to other crops in the light of the exceptional ‘once in 40 years summer weather’, he says.
In addition, market values that are tied to feed wheat have risen – and have received a further boost as pea and bean supply worldwide becomes increasingly tight.
“I believe that UK farmers have yet to realise the full potential of peas and beans, and that these crops are now more important than ever as a significant part of grower rotations.”
Earliness of maturity is a key characteristic when choosing linseed varieties, says Premium Crops managing director Andrew Probert.
He advises against holding out for what may be ‘on-paper’ yields from later maturing varieties, as a late harvest could compromise planting the next crop.
Linseed is a high value crop and small yield increases can have an important impact on gross margins, he says, so the company has been undertaking agronomic trials to help growers optimise their yields. “For example, long-term trials showed that using a seed rate of 800 seeds/m2 gives a consistent yield increase of about 10 per cent over 600 seeds/m2. This is a significant benefit for growers, worth in the region of £70/ha.”
Mr Probert concedes that the difficult climatic conditions of 2018 resulted in low yields, but notes there are always seasonal variations, and soil type can also make a difference, but the top UK yield recorded has been 3.92t/ha.
“Growing spring crops remains essential for many growers. Linseed not only helps spread the seasonal work but also has rotational benefits – most growers report their highest wheat yields behind linseed.”
Soya makes a first-class job of suffocating black-grass, says Simon Ashworth, who farms on the Sussex/Kent border. After just two years of growing soya, he has seen the levels of black-grass, which was becoming a serious problem, diminish.
Mr Ashworth says: “The key to getting on top of black-grass is to use the seed rate advocated by Soya UK so you get 60 plants/m2.
Soya is easy to grow in the UK, it also has a ready market and fits well into a rotation, he says.
Using an attachment made for pea harvesting, he found combining the soya really easy too.
“In the first year we went really slowly to make sure the hulls were properly separated from the beans, but we need not have worried. As the crop senesces the beans shrink so they are smaller than a pea; so it is easy to set the combine up.”