Crop Watch: To drill or not to drill?

Making the right call in a challenging season is tough, and our Crop Watch agronomists have plenty of advice this week on the way ahead, with Patrick Stephenson urging northern growers to consider leaving fallowing wet fields until spring instead of puddling in a poor crop.

The cereal harvest has at last given way to the maize harvest in the West, and Giles Stephenson reminds growers who are not putting wheat straight in behind it to take steps to preserve soil structure over winter.

As is so often the case, drier weather in the East has seen growers make good progress, but the recent mild weather has turned Marcus Mann’s thoughts to dealing with aphids carrying barley yellow dwarf virus.

See also: Cereal grower turns to sugar beet as an extra break crop

And it’s not just the task in hand that is occupying the thoughts of Richard Harding, who has embarked on an ambitious project to look at the profitability or otherwise of conservation agriculture.

Patrick Stephenson

North: Patrick Stephenson

AICC (Yorkshire)

I have received many comments from clients regarding a statement in my last Crop Watch that drilling was well under way. I have to acknowledge it is a real challenge with rainfall varying immensely across Yorkshire last month.

The direct drill farmers have managed reasonably well except where trafficking has been an issue but, once again, the power harrow combination units are ruling the roost.

These simple “bully boy” units tend to be the only system that can operate across the widest range of conditions.

But, being able to travel may not be the best answer to why you are drilling. The question is when should we stop and wait for spring or accept that fallow is the best alternative?

The 2012 season was a salutary lesson in the futility of continuing in poor conditions with terrible crops and ruined soil conditions. In reality we should ask ourselves what are we doing in the field?

As a consequence, winter barley drilling has now stopped. This crop is very sensitive to establishment conditions and late drilling in poor soils is a loss-leading exercise.

The adage that “you can puddle in winter wheat” is only partially true and, although we are continuing to drill, there are limits with headlands, wet areas, and waterlogged fields being left.

In addition, seed rates are now over 400 plants per sq m in an attempt to counter slugs and hostile soil conditions.

Scrutinise spray programmes

This battle with seed-bed conditions has left many of our pre-emergence programmes in tatters and a rapid regrouping is taking place as we target peri-emergence or reduce the stack on the pre-emergence.

As for those crops that have been drilled, they are emerging well. Early drilled wheat following winter oats has the usual gout fly eggs present and will be sprayed as required.

Where pre-emergence sprays have been applied they appear to be working well and will soon be getting a top-up on known blackgrass fields.

We are then left with the decision of when to apply propyzamide. As temperatures nudge 23C, application time is likely to be a long way off. However big blackgrass is a stubborn beast so, as ever, timing will be a compromise.


Giles Simpson

West: Giles Simpson

Pearce Seeds (Somerset)

Oilseed rape crops are varying immensely with some very forward crops and some crops that are struggling. The crops that are struggling have been hammered by cabbage stem flea beetle.

What is noticeable is that where the seed-beds were good and well consolidated, the flea beetle damage has been much less, proving the point that good seed-bed preparation is the key to good establishment. We all know it but don’t always achieve it.

Phoma has been present with a noticeable difference in levels in different varieties. This has been treated with either prothioconazole on its own or on the forward crops some metconazole has been added.

Most crops have also had a second graminicide with a trace element package added as well.

The cereals started being planted a couple of weeks ago with barley and wheat being drilled on the non-blackgrass fields first.

The wheat going in now behind maize is all treated with Redigo Deter (clothianidin + prothioconazole).

The fields will be sprayed pre-emergence with either Chronicle (pendimethalin + picolinafen) in low weed-pressure situations or, where there is blackgrass, an application based around flufenacet and also Avadex (tri-allate) – this worked well last year.

Mega maize yields

Most of the maize has now been harvested and we can certainly say it’s been a bumper year, with most yielding in excess of the 50t/ha fresh weight.

Hopefully the quality will be good as the cobs were certainly of a good size and well filled.

The stubbles are very clean and wheat is being drilled direct into the stubbles. Fields that are not having wheat drilled into them are either having cover crops drilled or some form of cultivation undertaken to reduce soil erosion and run off.

Grass reseeds in general look well, but some crops that were direct drilled into either stubbles or sprayed off grass have struggled with slugs and received an application of either metaldehyde or ferric phosphate pellets.

The forward reseeds are now receiving a herbicide to clear up any weeds, which are mainly chickweed, charlock and docks.

Richard Harding

Richard Harding

South: Richard Harding

Procam (Sussex)

This week I have actually seen dust flying behind a drill on the Downs for the first time this autumn.

The common theme for establishing crops this year has definitely been the need for patience, whatever the establishment method.

It’s very common at the moment to find an undrilled wet spot in many fields. Ultimately, timing and attention to detail, has been key to achieving well established crops, plus a little luck.

For anyone passionate about soil biology, the method of crop establishment is crucial in how we manage our soil.

On farms that have focused on non-inversion tillage, it is very pleasing to see continual improvements in soil structure, friability and biological activity.

However, non-inversion tillage can and should be seen as part of a systems approach to crop production, valuing equally the physical, chemical and biological aspects of soil but while it may work for some, this is certainly not a system for everyone.

Rethinking resiliance

In between a busy autumn of crop walking, time has been spent arranging a series of November meetings to address the overall question of: “How can we build a resilient farm business in uncertain times?”

Conservation Agriculture (CA) has the potential to answer some of these questions. Any farm can adopt elements of this approach as part of a strategy to future proof their business financially, while sustainably protecting the environment.

As yet we are still to fully test the financials of this system in the UK, so a collaboration between Procam, Groundswell and Churchgates Land Family Business will aim to fully address if CA is viable in the UK by doing a pilot benchmarking project for the system.

Alongside the financials, the focus will be to seek to increase the knowledge transfer of CA techniques to project group members and also to the wider industry.

Given the inherent timescales involved in rebuilding resilience and biological activity in soils, the value of sharing relevant farm scale field trials results will be invaluable.

Anyone interested in this project can contact


Marcus Mann

East: Marcus Mann

Frontier (Essex)

The drier weather in the East has certainly enabled a good drilling window with good seed-beds, allowing crops to establish quickly.

The blackgrass has not been as dormant as reports suggested and those that held off have been rewarded with a flush prior to drilling.  

Further flushes will rely on there being sufficient soil moisture.  As seed-beds are starting to dry out, residual herbicide programmes are being reviewed. 

With warmer soils and enough moisture from morning dew to allow grass-weeds to germinate, combined with limited spraying opportunities, delaying the application is a risk.  

Programmes based around 360g/ha flufenacet are being employed on the worst fields either applied in one hit pre-emergence or split pre/early post-emergence in order to cater for protracted germination.

Increased insects

Rothamsted insect survey has shown a threefold increase in the number of bird cherry oat aphids.

This has been evident in cereal volunteers which will create a green bridge to spread the BYDV virus to newly emerging crops.  

It will be necessary for cereals that have not had Redigo Deter (clothianidin + prothioconazole) dressing to receive an early application of a pyrethroid.

Winter oilseed rape continues to grow well under the warmer conditions, with crops now fully established.

The early reports of phoma have perhaps not been so much of a concern in the East with the drier conditions of late.

However symptoms usually appear two to three weeks after spore release and lesions are now being found and thresholds met.

The UK threshold is 10% of plants infected and this is particularly important with smaller plants where the infection has less distance to travel to reach the leaf petioles.

Treatments are scheduled and on more forward crops this also gives an opportunity to add a growth regulator in the form of tebuconazole or metconazole. 

At time of writing, peach potato aphids are being caught in suction traps and low levels are being found within crops.

Migration will certainly increase with warming temperatures. However careful monitoring is necessary as when numbers are low, it is best to delay applications until aphid migration has completed.

Due to the high levels of resistance to pyrethroids it’s important to select insecticides from alternative chemistry groups in the form of either pymetrozine or thiacloprid.