Bitterly cold winds and hungry pigeons have decimated many oilseed rape crops, putting them on a knife edge for survival. Luke Casswell and David Jones report on how the crop has fared around the country.
This weekend is crunch time for oilseed rape growers to decide whether to stick with struggling autumn-sown crops or rip them up and start again.
Crops are very variable after a cold and wet winter and extensive pigeon grazing. Up to a fifth of the area may be re-drilled, or as much as 40% in northern England.
Many have already decided whether to re-drill or not, but those holding out will have to weigh up oilseed rape’s remarkable recovery ability against stunted pigeon-hit crops.
John Taylor, East Anglia area manager for United Oilseeds, says growers should only persevere if crops have plant populations of at least 10-15/sq m with good roots.
“Oilseed rape does have to be a very poor crop for grower to give up on, but if you are down to the odd plant and heavy pigeon damage there is little chance of a good crop,” he says.
Crop consultant Paul Sweeney, working in Cheshire and Lancashire, says only 40% of his intended area was drilled and 40% of that has failed, meaning his crop area is down about 75%.
The main reason for failure was that crops were sown too late into poor seed-beds, then hit by pigeons, frost and icy winds and those crops with roots less than 10cm proved unviable, he adds.
Further south in Shropshire, consultant Bryce Rham estimates his planned area of 1,720ha is down 25%, with some crops not drilled and others ripped up.
Just over 60% of his 400ha shortfall has gone into spring oilseed rape, with spring beans and barley making up most of the rest.
The majority of crops planned in East Anglia were drilled last autumn, although 10-15% of oilseed rape has been ripped up subsequently.
With such a variable pattern, Farmers Weekly contacted growers to check how they are getting on and what decisions they have made.
Jonathan Fenwick of Beelsby House Farm, near Grimsby has fared better than many growers around him in north Lincolnshire, but says he could lose 10% of his oilseed rape.
“I’ve heard some real horror stories, with people losing anything from 30 acres to 300-plus acres. Overall it is variable, though, because there are those who haven’t done so bad,” he says.
Mr Fenwick currently has all 700 acres (280ha) of his oilseed rape still in the ground, but admits there are some areas that he will have to make a decision on before the end of the month.
“If we have to, we will pull ours up in the next two weeks and go with spring oilseed rape,” he says.
Doug Richardson has ripped up 53ha (131 acres) of his 73ha (180 acres) of oilseed rape and re-drilled with spring oats and has to decide whether his surviving crop will make it.
“I’d say we’ve got about 18 acres that will definitely make it, and 31 acres that may do, we’ll just have to see over the next few days,” he says.
“Before the wind we were looking all right, and I thought some of it would have a better chance, but the cold wind has finished a lot of it,” he explains from his Wood Tenement Farm, near Knutsford.
“One of the worst bits is when you’ve made the choice and you begin cultivating the land and ripping it up. You go through the odd patch and wonder if it is really the right decision. I’d prefer to do it in the dark, to be honest,” he adds.
Edd Banks has ripped up a 10th of his oilseed rape and re-drilled with spring beans after a fierce fight against pigeons.
He tripled the number of gas gun birdscarers and kept them firing for longer than usual as the pigeons descended on his crop in a bitterly cold March in search of food.
“The crop had been virtually sitting still since September until we saw some warmth over the past two weeks. It is now coming on well and really starting to grow away,” he says.
He drilled 200ha of winter oilseed rape on his 1,100ha of arable land at Manor Farm, Harlton, some five miles south-west of Cambridge, and only had to replant 20ha.
Peter Snell expects all of his 100ha of oilseed rape to make it to harvest, consistent with many other growers in south-east Dorset.
“We are still three to four weeks behind on last year, but there are a few crops that are coming into flower and most of it is at around knee-height at least,” he says.
He adds there are areas of oilseed rape at North Farm, Horton, near Wimborne, that are slightly thinner than others where water has stood over winter and some areas picked on by pigeons.
“We’ve had a prolonged and fairly substantial spell of pigeons hammering the crops, but using birdscarers and bangers we’ve managed to keep them at bay as much as possible,” he says.
The wet weather has taken its toll on Robin Aird’s 310ha of oilseed rape, the majority of which was drilled by 13 September. Mr Aird has pulled up 90ha in total.
“We pulled 60ha back in December but we’ve been able to replace that with (spring) red wheat. We have a further 30ha that has had crawler but has since died in the wind and has been written off.
Everything that is still in the ground now we are going to keep and see how it gets on,” he explains.
Mr Aird says that he will be reluctant to spend much more on these crops following wet weather and bitter winds on Charlton Park Estate, Malmesbury.
“Very little oilseed rape came through the winter between here and Newcastle,” says David Hall, who manages the 800ha Chipchase Estate, 10 miles north of Hexham.
He is fortunate that all his 90ha of oilseed rape crops survived, although above the ground his plants virtually disappeared in the bitter February and March winds.
The key to success was that his plants had deep roots of 10-12cm despite little above the ground, and this good rooting he puts down to subsoiling at drilling time.
“The crop has greened up in the past 10 days. Up until then, it looked as if there was nothing in the field,” he says.
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