14 February 1997

Essex desert changes tack to beat the drought

Dry conditions have created a virtual desert in one part of Essex. Edward Long finds out how one combineable crops farmer is responding

CHANGES in the seasonal weather pattern and a severe lack of rain are forcing an Essex farm to change its strategy and tailor cropping to the new arid conditions.

Between 1964 and 1982 the average annual rainfall measured at an official weather station at Lee Wick Farm, St Osyths, part of Wigboro Wick Farm, was just 513mm (20.2in). That was low enough for it to gain a listing in The Guinness Book of Records as the driest farm in the country.

"But since then we have had even less rainfall," says Guy Smith, who, with brother Philip and father Andrew, farms 520ha (1300 acres) of combineable crops and potatoes on the coast near Clacton. "Last year we recorded just 12.3in, the lowest rainfall total for over 40 years and far worse than the 1976 drought year when 19in fell. Someone once told me that an area with an annual rainfall of 12in or less is technically a desert."

The farm is split into two blocks with 272ha (680 acres) of marine clay below sea level on marsh, and the rest easier working soil further inland.

Marsh clay encourages take-all, which hits second wheats by restricting rooting. Lack of rain triggers severe symptoms. First wheats yield 8.75t/ha (3.5t/acre) or more, second crops rarely do better than 6.25t/ha (2.5t/acre).

First wheats are, therefore, grown in a three-year rotation with winter rape and winter beans. The easier working part of the farm has longer runs of milling wheat and malting barley, plus peas and potatoes.

To conserve moisture a no-plough approach has been adopted for wheat and rape on the marsh, with crops established after discing. "The big advantage of farming in a low rainfall area is that we can normally produce good malting barley and milling wheat. But conditions last year were even too dry for barley and our 200-acre crop of Fanfare and Gleam was a financial disaster."

Nitrogen went on as usual in early March, but there was no rain for six weeks. "It went into the head and wrecked malting quality. We normally combine 3t/acre of grain worth a £20/t premium, but last year averaged just 2.25t/acre. As there was no premium, we lost around £30,000."

Drought impact

The impact of the drought is worst on the easier working part of the farm. But nowhere escapes its effects. As a result the farming policy is being reshaped to:

lA reduction in spring cropping.

lA change in fertiliser practice.

lEarlier cereal drilling.

lWheat varieties chosen to cope with dry conditions.

Spring beans were dropped from the marsh rotation three years ago. Due to shallow rooting and premature ripening, the future of the winter crop is now under review, too. If it goes, more reliance will be placed on rape, which copes better with dry springs.

Nitrogen will be applied three weeks sooner, in mid-February, and cereals will be drilled about 14 days earlier, in the first week of Septem-ber, to achieve positive root growth.

Class 1 milling varieties have been grown until now, with Hereward dominating. But that is changing as HGCA research suggests some varieties are better able to cope with drought than others.

Hereward and Spark

"Unfortunately, Hereward and Spark seem to have poor tolerance, some class 2 wheats, such as Rialto, which stores sugar in its leaves, look better," says Mr Smith. Last years Hereward yielded up to 1.9t/ha (0.75t/acre) below Rialto. We have increased Rialto and halved the area of Hereward this season."

Use of growth stimulants for early rooting is also being investigated.

Two small reservoirs on the farm hold 3m gallons of winter surface water. Potatoes have first call on irrigation, plus maize.

Last year, for the first time, barley was irrigated to stop it drying out. About 19mm (0.75in) went on in mid-May. The treated area of crop yielded 1.25t/ha (0.5t/acre) better than the rest. &#42

Hes a record breaker – but for all the wrong reasons. Guy Smiths Essex farm is officially the driest in Britain, prompting key management changes. Where crop growth varies according to soil type precision farming could help (left).


Wigboro cropping

Cropha(acres)

Wheat260(650)

Winter barley80(200)

Winter rape80(200)

winter beans40(100)

Peas20(50)

Potatoes20(50)


&#8226 Next week we report on wheat varieties best able to cope with dry conditions.