Rain, wind and storms have made this autumn a real struggle. Gilly Johnson assesses progress.
WITH little let up in the rain since harvest, soil conditions are generally poor across the country. Heavy land is taking the worst hammering. The verdict is that this has been one of the most testing drilling seasons for decades – ironically, just at a time when many growers were attempting to move the drilling window earlier.
Its also been a tough season for those trying alternative cultivation systems. Direct drilled crops are causing concern for Simon Senior, independent agronomist based in the Humberside. "Some have been sat in strips of water for weeks; if it doesnt dry up soon, roots could start to rot."
In Scotland, distributor Dr Keith Dawson of CSC CropCare hasnt witnessed flooding as bad as that in the south, but he shares the worries about minimal cultivation: "Weve seen a lot of smearing, and where discs have been used, there will be compaction problems ahead."
Slugs have been enjoying life with warm temperatures, plenty of moisture and loose, cloddy seedbeds as growers snatch a drilling window where possible, but are then rained off before rolling can take place. "We are advising mini pellets, little and often, rather than the more expensive types," says Essex-based agronomist Peter Taylor. "Its not worth spending the extra." Pelleting will continue for the later drillings until night temperatures cool off.
For those with just a few fields to go, itll probably be a case of using whatever seed is left in the shed, says Dr John Howie of PBIC Seeds. "Id stay with winter wheat at least until the end of December."
But if you are ordering a variety specifically for later drilling, then choose a faster developing, high tillering wheat such as Charger, he suggests. "If youre worried about cloddy sowing conditions and slugs, then Napier is a good choice because of its good autumn vigour."
Later harvest maturity is something to watch – particularly for anyone still drilling Group 3 types such as Claire and Consort, and also Rialto, Hereward and Malacca.
Dont forget end markets in the rush to put some seed in, he argues. "If theres the opportunity to lock in to a milling market for quality spring wheat, then take advantage of it. Id advise ordering promptly, though – spring wheats ran short a few years ago following the last very wet autumn."
In Scotland, Dr Keith Dawson of CSC CropCare has reassuring words for anyone with Riband still to drill: "Two years ago we saw good results from February-sown Riband. So dont panic and go in regardless – wait and drill into decent soil conditions. Then monitor plant populations and be prepared to adjust growth regulator and N programmes in spring, to manipulate crop canopies."
Strategies for early drilled cereals are the biggest headache. Few growers have managed to apply herbicides; many pre-em plans have also fallen by the wayside. Meanwhile, soil conditions are cobbly, leaching is a risk and IPU effectiveness is falling off by the day. Catching up lost ground with contact action is likely to prove expensive – but theres no alternative, if blackgrass is not to escape into spring.
"Tillering blackgrass, with possible resistance, must be your priority," says Iain Hamilton, Novartis technical specialist. He suggests a full rate Hawk/Lexus programme, with the aim of treating before the weed goes beyond the three-leaf stage. In Essex, agronomist Peter Taylor has made recommendations for Hawk/IPU mixtures, but weather has delayed spraying. Hell be moving towards Lexus as an IPU substitute as time moves on.Potato harvesting
Potato growers are suffering. Many crops which have been lifted (progress was 82% at the end of October) are dirty and risk storage rots; some may have to stay in the ground over winter. It has happened before; in 1998, about 7,000ha were not harvested by Christmas. The BPC estimates that most of these were eventually lifted, with around 75% saleable.
BPC levy relief is available for crops lost due to flooding; however, claims have to have been received by 1 November. All potatoes must be lost in the ground and no relief is available if any of the crop from the affected area has been lifted. More details from the BPC on 01865 782237.
For those with fields sitting under inches of water, the bad news is that the farm insurance policy will not include flood damage to crops.
"Weather damage is very tricky to underwrite," says Tim Price of NFU Mutual. "And if we were to offer crop flood crop insurance, then it might encourage people to grow high value crops in flood plains."
The only weather damage that does come under insurance cover is hail. Protection is taken out mainly by fruit growers, though some arable crops have also been covered, he points out.
Disaster insurance is available in the US and elsewhere, in areas where there is high flooding risk. Such policies tend to be underwritten by national governments, and so are not commercial schemes. Other performance-related insurance policies are now available in the UK, but these are linked to average regional yields rather than an individual farm situation.