30 January 1999

Across the country AICC regional members estimate the following areas destined for winter wheat are still to be drilled:

Scotland 40-50%

Scottish Agronomys Huw Phillips reckons that if 60% of the winter wheat area is eventually drilled growers will be lucky. Many later drilled crops may have to be redrilled with spring options. Favourites, seed availability allowing, include spring barley, spring wheat and spring oats.

Northern region 20-30%

Theres about 20% still to be drilled in Andrew Fishers Yorkshire and Durham areas. But it gets worse in Northumberland – and many crops will have to be redrilled because of flooding and slugs. Spring wheat is replacing first wheats – Chablis or Imp and spring barleys in second cereal situations. Theres a little bit of interest in industrial rape on set-aside.

West 20-30%

Growers with root crops have obviously been most affected, reports Tony Howell in Shropshire. Most crops were drilled before the weather broke in October, but there will be a small proportion of those drilled later that will be patched.

East 15-20%

Root lands in Suffolk and Norfolk are most affected but even the gravelly soils in Caroline Hayes Hertfordshire area are resembling "Christmas pudding". Land destined for winter wheat will go into spring cropping now, she says. Spring wheat is the preferred option if still available – and affordable. Some will be used for patching headlands and poor areas. Other options, depending on rotations, will be spring barley and beans, which is "cheap and given good gross margins in the past three years now that we can get on top of mildew and bruchid beetle".

Central 5-25%

Problem areas are the Vale of Evesham and Gloucestershire. On root and veg land only 75% of that intended for wheat has been drilled. Some wont be now either, according to Gloucestershire consultant Jonathan Olver. Later sown crops are growing into totally saturated soil, which will probably be abandoned and redrilled. With lack of frost he predicts more slug activity. Spring wheat, linseed or spring barley are the popular options but not spring rape. There may be the odd pulse crop.

South 2-5%

Soils in Peter Cowlricks West Sussex area are quite free draining so many growers managed to keep drilling until mid-December. Heavier clays in the Weald have been more affected, but of greater concern to Mr Cowlrick is late sown wheat which is now slug damaged with poor rooting because the ground is so wet. They will be reviewed in February.

South East 10-20%

Fields in East Sussex are at full moisture capacity and unwalkable, reports Simon Van der Slikke. Many wheat crops are suffering from slugs and waterlogging and will be redrilled. Although theres a fortnight to put winter wheats in, he anticipates the wet conditions will thwart attempts. Spring wheat, some spring rape and beans are being considered.

SHALL WE SOW NOW OR WAIT?

Should you stick with winter wheat or sow spring varieties from next month?Sarah Henly reviews current advice.

TIME is running out for winter wheat. Some varieties may be better left in the bag than put in the ground after next week, according to John Garstang, principal consultant at ADAS Boxworth.

This week is, according to NIAB, the latest safe sowing date for 14 of the 19 listed on the 1999 Recommended List. Anything drilled from now on could yield 15-20% less than crops sown at the usual time. Vernalisation is the main reason for leaving seed in the barn for next season.

The seed requires a period of cold to switch the crop from vegetative to the reproductive growth which leads later to the development of grain. This occurs most effectively around 3íC. If crops are sown too late, the combination of poor vernalisation and reduced vegetative growth reduces grain production.

"If vernalisation isnt fully achieved, there is a marked decline in yield, much greater than that caused by delayed drilling alone. The problem is growers cant until the end of April and by then it has cost a lot in inputs. The lost yield is irrecoverable," he warns.

Mr Garstang advises putting the seed away for next year if you overshoot by more than a fortnight the varietys latest safe sowing published in the NIAB Recommended List.

However Dr Mike Jeffes, technical development manager for Dalgety Arable, believes some varieties can be pushed further than others.

"If the weather comes right this week or next, growers can risk sowing any variety. After mid-February, it may be better to avoid Reaper and even Savannah, though Riband still seems to do all right. By the end of the month, the safest bets are Spark, Buster, Cadenza and Soissons," he says.

He would prefer to see spring varieties such as Chablis and Imp sown in February because they dont have the same need for vernalisation. However, due to high demand, spring wheat seed is difficult to get hold of, so other crop options may have to be considered.

THE same dilemma could apply where growers feel the need to patch up or replace winter oilseed rape crops. Although most went in reasonably well in the autumn, in some areas, plant populations have been reduced by slugs, pigeons and rabbits. Slugs in particular are active in the wet and fairly mild conditions.

Dr Jeffes has seen the problem at first hand on Throws Farm in Essex where he is based. Some field corners seem lost beyond redemption, but rape has a tremendous capacity to recover from winter damage. As few as 20 plants/sq m will give a decent crop, he says. "Patching up poor areas within a field is not worth the hassle unless it can be harvested separately. Then redrilling with spring turnip rape varieties such as Kova and Agena may be the best option. They are two weeks earlier to harvest than traditional spring rape, and have similarly low glucosinolate and erucic acid levels," he explains.

Alternatively, since IACS payments may be affected, it may be worth entering the unproductive patches into set-aside this year. Dale Senior, independent crop consultant in North Humberside, shares that opinion.

"Anyone with a difficult rape crop should consider set-aside because oilseed area payments are expected to drop by about 40% on last year. This season growers will need to rely on their yields rather than the IACS payment to make crops pay," warns Mr Senior.

He would also question the sense of leaving rape crops with less than 20 plants/sq m, but the decision will depend upon crop size, health and weed numbers. He has costed out the likely returns from each winter crop as it stands, and compared that with other options (see table).

"Whatever crop you choose, it needs to be successful this season because the support prices arent there to buffer lower yields. That also applies to late sown winter wheat crops. You can save on inputs to improve returns, but dont jeopardise yields," warns Mr Senior.

A late sown winter wheat can be treated like a spring crop drilled in mid-February. For instance it may require fewer inputs because the disease pressure will be lower and weeds less of a threat. Since the straw has less time to grow, there may be no need for a growth regulator, he explains.

He has calculated a potential saving on inputs of £77.60/ha (£31.40/acre) by sowing the variety Consort in February rather than October (see table left). However that saving is unlikely to make up for the shortfall in yield. And there is the added risk of insufficient cold weather for vernalisation.

WE have even bigger puddles than this! boasts Richard Pipe and his consultant Simon Draper (right).

Its a common sight on vegetable and root land in the Suffolk coastal belt where Mr Pipes Cedars Farm is situated. So whats the prescription for soil that has been hammered like this? Two options, says Mr Draper. Neither are brilliant, but he favours the first:

&#8226 Dig 2-3ft holes around edge of lake to break through the pan and create soakaways.

&#8226 Get in a slurry tanker and suck it off and cultivate land once its fit to try and break the pan.

Mr Pipe has only completed 10% of his intended 1,000-acre winter wheat acreage. With potatoes and field veg already in his rotation he has a big headache. The winter wheat option has gone, so he is left with spring malting barley and linseed which only adds to an already heavy spring workload. One advantage of linseed, says Mr Draper, is that it has a good taproot and will bust through the pan.

Take your pick of spring options

WITH soils looking increasingly unlikely to dry out in time for winter wheat, most consultants and growers are turning to spring options.

The highest gross margins are likely to come from the spring cereals – where malting and milling premiums can be achieved according to Strutt and Parkers Rachael Potter. But seed supplies are tight and contract values already falling. Malting barley was £35/t over feed before Christmas but is now £20/t, she says.

With increased spring barley sowing maltsters will be more fussy. However, with the subsidy occupying only 35% of the final margin, crop output is still important.

Spring wheat, if you can get the seed and afford the £400/t price tag, is favourite to replace first wheats.

Linseed gives the highest guaranteed income of the break crops, according to Ms Potters figures with aid payment contributing 83% of the gross margin. Its a popular choice on light land where yield is limited and the subsidy a good buffer against drought, she adds.

Ms Potter is also considering peas for an early harvest but selecting the human consumption varieties for the extra value.

Triticale has Dalgetys Mike Jeffes vote. Binova can be sown to the end of March without risk of failure; it has good resistance to septoria and doesnt grow long straw. The other major advantage is harvest timing – around the winter wheat level, he says.

And in the north, Simon Seniors choice if replacing winter rape? Spring rape or linseed, provided soil type and harvest dates are suitable. Another option may be too rent out land for potatoes – now riding high in the profitability league.

And if set-aside is your answer there is always a contract for industrial rape to consider. J K King and Sons are offering fixed price contracts on High Erucic Acid Rape (HEAR) at £150/t for harvest movement .


Input October February

drilled drilled

Herbicides autumn residual –

£27/ha

spring contact spring contact £12/ha £12/ha

Fungicides 3 spray programme 1(2) spray programme £53/ha £18/ha (£36/ha)

Growth regulators 2 sprays – £14/ha

BYDV protection 1 spray – £1.60/ha

Total cost £107.60/ha £30/ha

Potential saving by drilling late is £77.60/ha


S/wheat S/barley S/oats S/beans Peas S/rape S/rape Sun- Linseed Linola Set- Milling Malting Milling edible Indust. flower aside

OUTPUT

Yield (t/ha) 2.63 2.43 2.43 1.62 1.62 0.93 0.93 0.65 0.81 0.77 0

Yield (t/ha) 6.5 6.0 6.0 4.0 4.0 2.3 2.3 1.6 2.0 1.9 0

Price (£/t) 98 100 80 80 85 150 125 165 120 130 0

Crop output 637 600 480 320 340 345 288 264 240 247 0

Subsidy (£/ha) 242 242 242 349 349 215 306 215 467 467 306

Gross output (£/ha) 879 842 722 669 689 560 594 479 707 714 306

GROWING COSTS

Seed 40 45 40 55 60 50 45 110 55 60 0

Nutrition 55 40 48 10 10 40 40 22 22 22 0

Sprays 90 71 45 47 82 30 30 15 64 64 0

Total cost (£/ha) 185 156 143 112 152 120 115 147 141 146 0

Gross margin (£/ha) 694 686 579 557 537 440 479 332 566 568 306

Gross margin (£/acre) 281 278 234 225 217 178 194 134 229 230 124

Assumes £18/t premium for milling wheat and £20/t for malting barley

Assumes oilseed subsidy dramatically cut back (from £427/ha)

Assumes £5/t premium for peas grown for human consumption

NB. Spring barley without malting premium £596/ha gross margin Source: Strutt and Parker