5 April 2002

Its all go for spring drilling

With spring drilling well

under way, Andrew Blake

assesses prospects on

farmers weeklys

barometer farms

NEAR ideal seed-beds and timely sowing promise to give spring crops in most regions a much better start than last season.

Only in Northern Ireland, which suffered less than elsewhere from last seasons sodden start, are conditions much the same as in spring 2001.

"The difference is like chalk and cheese," says Peter Wombwell, who began sowing peas as early as Feb 28 this year at Rectory Farm, Ickleton, Essex. "Last spring was appalling.

"This time, where we ploughed and pressed before Christmas, the weather has done a cracking job. We have been able to get some really good seed-beds quickly just with our 6m Cousins combination harrow. We could fly along and it is so much cheaper than using the 4m power harrow."

Only on 8ha (20 acres) of late ploughed stubble turnips and some late lifted sugar beet has the latter tool been required, he notes.

"We could have put more winter wheat in. But there is likely to be so much more around than usual, so I stuck to the original plan." That involves 39ha (97 acres) of sugar beet and 34ha (84 acres) of peas, some of which follow beet to give a dual break for CPB Twyford cereal trials.

"Along with the tares and winter rape it has set us up with 370 acres for first wheats next autumn, which will be rather more than normal.

"Peas always do quite well here. We had some early sown and some very late last year and still averaged 2t/acre," he says.

Nitouche, on Fengrains recommendation, has replaced Maro, which usually went flat and was difficult to harvest. "I am told the market is £8-£10/t over feed, and I want to make combining easier now that it is all being done on contract."

Compared with last year, when most beet was not sown until the end of April, this years starting date of Mar 20 was about right, says Mr Wombwell.

"We share the job with a neighbour, who has 150 acres, and we also sow 90 acres on contract. We use his drill and we supply the labour. I held back a bit on one field with some weed beet which I wanted to germinate first, and we were then held up by about 30mm of rain. But that should not be a problem. Some of last years late sowing yielded surprisingly well."

Tramlining at 24m, down the rows to avoid cross-rut problems at harvest, has been practised for the past four years. It avoids having to switch to row-crop wheels, has apparently had no detrimental effect on yield and is more wildlife-friendly, especially to partridges, notes Mr Wombwell.

Roberta is his main variety. "It has plenty of top for good early ground cover and a nice crown, which makes it easy to top. We also have Humber, which looks good on paper, and some Wildcat. But there really is not a great deal to choose between varieties for yield alone."

He tends to shun pre-emergence herbicides. "I am a great believer in sowing the beet and letting it get on with it. I do not like to knock it early, so we will go later, probably with a Betanal-based programme because it is cheap. With the cultivation a bit later than usual, we have already killed a lot of weeds, so we are starting quite clean."

Sole spring weed-killing recommendation up to the end of last week from new agronomist, Farmacys Paul Johnson, has been for 2.5 litres/ha of Reflex T (fomasafen + terbutryn) pre-emergence on the peas to tackle broad-leaved weeds, mainly black bindweed.

The threatened disappearance of that product, along with Fortrol (cyanazine) and others, under an EU review (Arable Mar 29), is worrying, he says. "It could certainly be a problem." &#42

SOWING UPDATE FROM AROUND THE REGIONS

&#8226 SOUTH

Compared with 2001 this springs pre-Easter sowing slot for peas last week was spot on, says Simon Porter.

We did not go until the middle to end of April last year, and it is marvellous to feel the sunshine on your back this spring.

Nephew Giles hopes the new 4m Horsch CO4 drill will permit the 80ha (200 acres) of Nitouche and Arrow to be sown at a more uniform depth than with the farms power harrow combination unit. Conditions are ideal and the ground is working down a treat.

Optic malting barley, treated with Evict (tefluthrin) against wireworms and sown three weeks ago, has noticeably escaped the attention of rooks which are normally troublesome, he notes.

&#8226 SOUTH-WEST

No spring sowing, bar 8ha of Shepody potatoes for processing, took place before Easter on Chris Salisburys farms in Somerset. Our soils are still quite cold.

The main thing is that we had some useful weather over-winter. The land ploughed over quite well and we should not have the compaction problems we had last year. I am much more optimistic that we will get some good seed-beds.

Dropping sugar beet from the rotation has eased his overall workload. I am enjoying not having to worry about drilling beet.

There is still plenty of time for our peas — home-saved Agadir and Arrow. Sowing on the higher, colder ground at Yeovil rarely takes place before April, he explains.

&#8226 MIDLANDS

With hindsight William Hemus is glad he was prevented from sowing peas on his Warks heavyland farm in mid-March.

I was struggling to spray our wheat because of the wind and the ground was drying well.

We went in to level the ground and were just two days away from drilling. But then we had 27mm of rain in five days. It was annoying not to get on, but they would have suffered. He hopes to get his 35ha (86 acres) of Espace and Carlton, another new large blue, both for seed, sown this week.

Land for potatoes was still in stubble last week. But there is plenty of time – April is ideal for us. When it comes right we shall plough and work in sections so the land does not dry out too quickly.

Compared with 2001, this spring is far more encouraging, he says. Last year was a nightmare. Everything was going in where it should not because we were ploughing up stubble and drilling straight behind. So the peas ended up in ground that had been too wet for wheat.

&#8226 WEST

Even with no sugar beet sown before the holiday, Shropshires Sandy Walker reports spring plantings well on course. We are still at least a month ahead of last year, when we did not sow any beet until May.

This spring is easy compared with last year and soil conditions are wonderful.

At least 60% of his potatoes were planted before Easter, with the earliest under fleece just about through. That is much earlier than last year and they have gone in very well. Some of our heavy ground is still a bit wet underneath, but nowhere near like it was then.

&#8226 NORTH

In Yorks Catherine Thompson began drilling sugar beet on Mar 23 and had more than two-thirds of her 36ha (90 acres) done three days later. It has been great. We are bang on schedule, though I would not want to have gone any earlier. Last year we did not even start until May 5.

The light black soil is prone to wind blow, so the crop was sown straight into ploughed and pressed land.

We can get very bad sand blow and we have tried everything over the years to stop it. The cheapest way is to direct drill into stubble, but a lot depends on how good the previous crop was.

If there are no wheelings it is OK. But after last spring we had huge ruts, so we had to plough.

Peas for early vining went in well on Mar 11.

Conditions were brilliant. Sole disappointment was having to use the farms aging MF500 drill rather than Swaythorpe Growers new precision machine bought to achieve more even emergence and harvest maturity.

Planned spring beans have been dropped in favour of letting the land for forage maize.

&#8226 SCOTLAND

With half his 60ha (148 acres) of Decanter and Novello spring barley, all for seed, drilled by the middle of last week, Robert Ramsay is pleased with progress in Angus.

Most of the 7ha (17 acres) each of trial areas of Phoenix peas and Victor beans, also all for seed, were also in.

Overall it is definitely much better than last spring when we had not even started and we were looking to the end of April before we got on.

Success with pulses on his farm in the Borders encouraged him to try them further north.

We are possibly slightly late on our long-term average, but well ahead of last year. We have less to do because we have rather more winter crops.

But I am now wondering whether I might have been better off with more spring cropping, especially as it is 100% for seed.

&#8226 N IRELAND

After a very wet February in County Londonderry Robert Craigs low-lying soils are still quite cold.

We have been getting some quite tight frosts down to -4C. As a result little was expected to be sown before Easter.

As well as Annabelle and Riviera barley for seed, the latter yielding 7.6t/ha (3.1t/acre) last year, a crop of peas undersown with lucerne and red clover for silage is planned.

Last year we undersowed with Italian ryegrass, but the cows did not do very well on it. They did better on 1.5 acres of lucerne we grew three years ago so we thought we would try it on a larger scale.