Drought stress hits crops from Scotland to south coast

The bone-dry spring is putting pressure on newly sown spring crops from Scotland to the south coast of England amid concerns that forecast rain at the weekend will not be enough to revive crops.

Spring-sown crops such as barley, beans and beet are suffering from patchy emergence, while some winter crops are starting to look pale green with fertiliser sitting on the surface waiting to be washed in.

Agronomists are reporting more dry-weather diseases such as rusts and mildew on wheat as well as those encouraged by rain like septoria, while brown rust and ramularia on barley is often more prevalent than wet-weather diseases net blotch and rhynchosporium.

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Although rain is forecast by the weekend, many growers and agronomists fear it may be too late to prevent some yield loss after generally dry weather since last autumn.

Spring barley showing poor emergence

Spring barley showing poor emergence © David Jones

Parched in Norfolk

On the north Norfolk coast, Holkham Estate farm manager James Beamish says spring-drilled sugar beet and barley is in need of rain while irrigation has started on potatoes earlier than normal.

“It’s an important time over the next few weeks because if we see no rain then it will start to affect winter-sown crop yields,” he says.

Sugar beet on the estate is suffering as much from the cold winds off the North Sea with 260ha waiting for some wet and warm weather to move it beyond the early cotyledon leaf stage.

His 330ha of spring malting barley is not yet suffering too badly on the nearly 3,500ha he manages, but the crop could do with some rain, he says.

Very dry in Essex

Further south in Essex, arable grower Nick Cousins says the very dry conditions are causing his winter wheat to look pale green as fertiliser is not being washed in; the farm’s last decent rain was in late March.

“Wheats are looking hungry and pale and I fear now that tillers will die, which could have a huge effect on yield,” he says.

Mr Cousins already had to pull up 46ha of his oilseed rape last autumn and replace it with winter beans after one of the driest autumns for 30 years.

Spring barley and peas on his 280ha Dagnets Farm, near Braintree, has shown patchy germination and he is already envisaging “not a great year for spring barley”.

Crop canopies

In Cambridgeshire, crop physiologist at consultant Adas Daniel Kindred says small crop canopies in spring-sown crops could limit yields as plants may not be big enough to gain from strong sunlight in May and June.


“Every day with no rain is losing yield potential of crops,” he says from his base at Adas Boxworth, near Cambridge.

However, he points out that 2010 and 2011 saw dry springs and although yields of spring-sown crops were not great, they were not disastrous.

Little rain in Dorset

In Dorset on the English south coast there has been little significant rain since late February, and with only about 10mm of rain in the last two months spring crops on lighter soils are struggling.

Todd Jex, agronomist with advisory group Agrii, says spring barley and beans are suffering on drought–prone light sandy soils near the coast.

“We had a dry March followed by a dry April and on the lighter soils around Christchurch even the winter crops are starting to struggle,” he says.

Dry time north of the border

Further north, the lack of rain is hitting spring-sown crops in the Scottish Borders after very few April showers and a dry time in early May.

This is generally a dry area with rainfall levels similar to East Anglia. It is sheltered from the prevailing winds by the Cheviot Hills, but this year even drier than normal weather has hit spring barley.

Neil Thomson, farming five miles south of Kelso, says his spring barley is starting to struggle, while seed-beds are difficult to prepare for his May-sown broccoli and cauliflower crops.

After a wet March, the weather turned very dry in April making soil cultivations difficult and some of his spring malting barley is in need of a drink on the 600ha of light and medium loam soils at his Caverton Mill farm, growing combinable crops and brassicas.

Hoping for rain in Northumberland

Just across the border in north Northumberland, Peter Jeffreys is hoping for rain to help a 50ha block of spring barley grown on some very light land by the River Till.

He is growing spring barley for the second successive season following cover crops and sheep grazing, aimed at helping improve the soil structure and fertility on riverside land on his 400ha farm at Kimmerston, five miles north of Wooler.

“These fields are very susceptible to dry spells and we would normally expected them to look more stressed than this,” he says.

One grower more relaxed about the dry weather is Rod Smith on the north Northumberland coast who broke the world wheat yield record in 2015 with a crop of 16.52t/ha.

Wheat crops on his deep rich silt soils leading down to the causeway over to Holy Island look well with little sign of moisture stress and low disease levels.

However, he is looking to improve the sustainability of his arable operation by introducing grassland this season into his rotation on his 400ha Beal Farm, 10 miles south of Berwick-upon-Tweed.