Backward winter cereals will need intensive care this spring to encourage early growth and keep thin struggling crops free of disease.

Growers should be looking to encourage plants to tiller, applying early fertiliser to replace nutrients washed away by heavy rains and watching out for early mildew and septoria.

Agronomists are advising measures to promote tillering so single plants produce multiple grain ears to try and make up for poor establishment and slow growth in cold and wet soils.

They say farmers have a narrow window until the end of tillering in early April to try and repair the damage from one of the worst autumn drilling seasons on record.

“Don’t sit back, get out there and assess how backward your crops are. Growers can not afford to stick to plan A in a season like this – they must have a plan B,” Dick Neale, technical manger with adviser Hutchinsons, told Farmers Weekly.

He warns many wheat and barley crops drilled in late autumn have shown poor growth, with some cereal plants showing only two to three leaves and no tillers.

If crops are down to 200 stems/sq metre with no tillers it is necessary to encourage tillers to produce a minimum of 400 ears for a viable crop, he says.

Mr Neale suggests an early-tillering growth regulator could be applied close to 20 February or when there is active growth to induce tiller buds to burst. He advises a product such as Moddus (trinexapac-ethyl).

This could be before a more traditional T0 fungicide spray applied towards the end of tillering, which can be reached any time from 20 March onwards. Other advisers say it could be applied with the T0 spray when warm growing weather is more guaranteed.

Brian Ross, technical manager at Frontier, emphasises the need to encourage rooting and tillering using foliar phosphate for root development and a growth regulators like Moddus or Canopy (mepiquat + prohexadiore) to promote tiller production.

He suggests earlier-than-normal nitrogen dressings, if land conditions allow, to top up nutrient-deficient soils, applied in small amounts to avoid leaching.

“We need to get the plant to take up nutrients and that will mean applying a little nitrogen regularly to produce consistent growth,” says Mr Ross from his base at Diss in Norfolk.

Crop consultant Andrew Cotton emphasises the need for plant nutrients on the heavy land farms he covers in Buckinghamshire and east Berkshire.

“When conditions allow I would advise early nitrogen and sulphur to encourage as much growth as possible,” he says.

Poor tillering and shallow rooting will increase the effect of diseases such as septoria, mildew and rusts, and growers should be watching for any early signs of these developing, he advises.