There is definitely a feeling of spring being just around the corner here in the South East. Soil conditions on the Downs have allowed spring barley drilling to begin, albeit tentatively for now, with soil temperatures only slowly creeping up.
Oilseed rape that is not being grazed hard by pigeons is beginning to grow and crops not already showing symptoms will need watching carefully for light leaf spot and cabbage stem flea beetle (CSFB) damage. Toprex (paclobutrazol + difeneconazole) is a valid and effective fungicide option, but for applications pre-stem extension and where plant growth regulation is not a priority the options will revolve around the actives tebuconazole and prochloraz.
At a recent farmer meeting I was interested to overhear two farmers deep in debate; one was clearly suffering with pigeon damage and discussing the marked difference between an Essex and Hampshire pigeon. It was suggested that Essex pigeon clearly seemed to be a connoisseur of oilseed rape, whereas Hampshire pigeons were not! For backward oilseed rape and where CSFB is a problem, the aim will be to promote growth with an early application of nitrogen and sulphur plus appropriate trace elements, encouraging crops to grow away from the damage and continue root development.
As ground conditions allow, the priority in cereals will be to tidy up any over-wintered grassweeds and to treat fields that didn’t receive an autumn herbicide last year. Autumn-sown cereals drilled in good time have come through the winter well, with good, strong plant populations and good potential. Autumn programmes that included either Librerator (diflufenican + flufenacet) and Defy (prosulfocarb) mixes or Sienna (pendimethlin and picolinafen) have both worked well. Successful spring crops will require good seed-beds and a well-timed pre-emergence residual herbicide, particularly where Blackgrass is known to be a problem.
A common theme from some very inspiring winter technical meetings with Dwayne Beck and Joel Williams, to name just two, has been to emphasise the huge benefits of taking a balanced approach to soil management, giving equal importance to the soils physics, chemistry and biological properties. It seems clear that soil biology has not received the attention it deserves for too long. While this is a complex area, there are some very simple ways we can start to improve our soils and start seeing the financial benefit this can ultimately bring.
Building soil carbon levels and maintaining a permanent soil cover with either crop residues or living plants are simple and effective solutions. However, they do require a systems approach and there is no quick fix. Crop walking this winter has highlighted contrasting soil conditions managed using conventional versus conservation agriculture principles, clearly showing the benefits of a low soil disturbance approach. For those using cover crops again this year, a key question will be just how early we should be establishing them to capture maximum solar radiation? March is virtually upon us and so are 12 hours of daylight!