The past two weeks may not have done our winter crops any favours, but 16 whole days without rain in February gave us just the window we needed to crack on with spring barley planting. Thank heavens, because the crop is so important to us this year.

Picking fields and cultivating them with extreme care has meant we’ve already been able to get well over half our planned acreage south of the M4 into decent seedbeds. The dry spell has helped us access all but the heaviest, wettest ground. Unfortunately, though, the frost hasn’t penetrated much below 10-15mm. 

Patience continues to be of the essence with our heavier ground staying so wet. Rather than going in too deep and pulling up big lumps of plasticine which will always cause problems, we’re taking a two-stage cultivation approach in many cases; an initial shallow pass to open the soil and get it drying followed by a further pass to the required depth as soon as this is dry enough to work.

We have to remember it’s only the first week in March. Which means we’ve got 3-4 weeks before we see significant yield penalties from delayed drilling on most of our land.

Having said that, with spring barley returns more crucial than ever to us this year and malting premiums so low, maximising yields is our Number One priority. 

Wherever we can we’re rolling our seedbeds well, waiting 3-4 days for the surface to dry out so we break rather than merely knead any lumps. That way we ensure the best seed to soil contact despite the lack of frost tilth. We also maintain our defences against the slugs we’ve seen breeding right through to January – not to mention thousands of hungry rooks.

Soil temperatures remain barley above 2oC, yet the most rapid emergence is vital. So we’re firmly resisting the temptation to drill the seed down below rook reach. Instead, we’re keeping it as shallow as we dare – contingent with the pendimethalin-based pre-em we’re prioritising on any bad black-grass ground.

From a current 350-375 seeds/m2 we’ll be upping sowing rates to 400+ seeds/m2 for the second half of March to compensate for poor tillering. Where it didn’t go into the seedbed, 40-50kg/ha of N will be applied as soon as crops emerge. And we’ll be giving a root and tiller-boosting spray of Nutri-Phite PGA and the enhanced PGR, Adjust before the four leaf stage.

Continued drying (fingers firmly crossed) will allow us to get preparing seedbeds for peas, spring rape and linseed in the next week or so. We’re aiming to get our peas in from mid-March. But, with soils as cold as they remain, we won’t be thinking of drilling spring rape or linseed until April.

This will give us time to leave ‘life or death’ decisions on winter rapes – which haven’t still haven’t really moved – to the very last mid-March moment. By this time they really should have begun taking advantage of the early N they all got last month. Assuming, that is, they remain adequately protected from even the relatively small flocks of the pigeons that are otherwise wreaking havoc.