17 May 2002

Crops not a pretty sight

NORMALLY a walk through the crops in mid-May fills one full of hope and promise for harvest and regardless of the vagaries in the weather thereafter, at least one has the pleasure of seeing the fields at their best at least once during the growing season.

Total rainfall since the beginning of the year to May 10 was 159.6mm (6.3in) with a period lasting 37 days from Mar 21 to Apr 26 when all we had was 4.2mm (0.165in). That combined with cold easterly winds, had a devastating effect on crops, particularly winter cereals and emerging sugar beet.

Wetter winter

During the same period last year we had 264.7mm (10.4in) and that had been preceded by a considerably wetter winter. The rainfall total from Sept 1, 2001 to the Apr 30, 2002 was 363.4mm (14.3in) compared with the same period 12 months earlier of 615.6mm (24.2in). So it is little wonder that wheat and barley particularly are suffering on the free-draining limestone brash soils in south Lincolnshire.

Difficult decisions must be made as to how much more to invest in pesticides on wheat, especially when crops are looking decidedly sorry for themselves. Our programme to date has revolved around two growth regulators split between early and late March with the latter mixed with the fungicide picoxystrobin. That has now run out of steam and with septoria present on the lower leaves and the rainfall at the end of last month we are now ready to spray epoxiconazole as a protectant and curative triazole fungicide.

As yield potential diminishes and prices remain depressed, its hard to justify fancy fungicide programmes on crops which will fail to leave a margin after variable and fixed costs have been met. Our five-year average yield for wheat is 8.8t/ha (3.6t/acre). But this year, unless things change very rapidly, my forecast for yields to average over 1t/ha less at 7.75t/ha (3.1t/acre). Inclusive of area aid payment and valuing class one wheat at £75/t, that gives an output of £800/ha (£324/acre), less variable costs of £210/ha (£85/acre), leaving £590/ha (£239/acre) to cover all fixed costs, including depreciation, rent and finance charges.

The barley is a bit of a mixed bag with half justifying a split growth regulator programme, the remainder limited to one early at the end of March. All have been sprayed with picoxystrobin which has worked extremely well applying two-thirds of a dose at the end of March and one-third in early May. I am not anticipating a repeat of last years barley yield. Not just because of the cold dry spring, but also because of the poor sowing conditions which followed the plough last autumn.

Both wheat and barley have been sprayed with magnesium sulphate to off-set any trace element shortcomings due to drought and will be sprayed again.

Rape dilemma

The oilseed rape presents us with another dilemma. The crop looks extremely well and has grown very evenly across the whole 32ha (79 acre field). We dont feel that sclerotinia is a problem this season, but it is too early to predict the chances of contracting alternaria at this stage. To minimise the damage caused by the sprayer, we have, in the past, sprayed a fungicide as an insurance policy when the crop has been in full flower, which has hopefully allowed the rape between the tramlines to spring back behind the tractor. Any later and the stems crack and the crop stays down making combining difficult.

However, alternaria does not manifest itself at a dry time, so that it would be prudent to act when the first symptoms of the disease come into the crop, if at all. Crop damage caused by our equipment could by then be significant so that the other option would be to use a contractor. High clearance at a moments notice can be difficult to organise and would be an added cost. Spray now and possibly incur an unnecessary expense or spray later and pay the contract charges?

Deprived beet

Sugar beet drilled in the first week of April has received 34.4mm (1.3in) of rain up to May 10 and clearly looks deprived not only of water but also of warmth, since air temperatures and drying winds have not helped the young seedlings. To date we have sprayed twice with herbicides using a mixture of metamitron plus phenmedipham plus lenacil on May 2, and again two weeks later. Urea has also been applied after emergence at a little over 50kg N/ha (40 units/acre), which when added to FYM ploughed in last autumn, will be sufficient fertiliser for the crops need.

The plants have stood still for some time now and as a result we are losing numbers to birds, mice and insects, not to mention rabbits and hares.

The peas have emerged well since sowing in the third week of March and have been sprayed twice. The first using Opoguard before emergence and the second a tank mix of Pulsar and Fortrol on the May 8. Our concern is that the bentazone in the Pulsar may not work during drought or unseasonably cold weather, and we may therefore have wasted between £18 and £25/ha (between £7.28 and £10.12/acre), depending on the rate of use. This sounds like a pretty depressing report, with little to lift up the hearts of the writer or the reader but as anyone who farms on light stony land will testify, this is not a vintage spring. &#42

Lack of spring rainfall at Easton Lodge has curtailed crop growth and any hopes of a bumper cereal harvest. Sugar beet, which was drilled in early April, is also suffering. Farms manager John Lambkin is hoping that rain this week will help to give a welcome boost to this 15.2ha (37.5 acre) field of Jessica sugar beet which is showing signs of uneven germination and rabbit damage.