Video: Three growers reveal impact of rain and plans for the spring

Relentless wet weather has not only reduced the UK winter cereal area, but hampered yield potential.

With costs high and market prices low, we find out how crops are fairing for three growers after the winter deluge and how they plan to turn things around this spring.

See also: How arable farmers can turn things around this spring

Andrew Brown, Fairchilds Lodge, Rutland

One third of Andrew Brown’s farm in Rutland was left underwater in what he describes as the worst flood event in 40 years, following the destruction of Storm Henk.

“Huge volumes of water saw the river Welland flood four times in December, when previously the river would flood maybe once a year – if that,” says Andrew.

The river usually flows about 5m wide, but the floods expanded across 1km. Fortunately, the extent of the damage was concentrated on flood-prone areas defined by the Mid Tier Countryside Stewardship (CS) agreement.

Andrew has committed 50% of his 250ha farm to stewardship, as he says there was no way he could make the arable enterprise stack up with the declining Basic Payment Scheme subsidies and sky-high production costs.

Put environmental schemes on hold

“I’ve been forced in to this,” he says. “As a businessman I’ve gone for the option with the least risk and best return, but morally, as a food producer, it is wrong.

“I’m not the moral custodian for the nation’s food supply – that’s the government’s job – and they’re encouraging environmental schemes, so that’s what they can get.

“My advice would be to put environmental schemes on hold and start paying growers to produce as much food as they can. The world is currently in a very fragile place, and it only takes one global event to put the country in a very difficult position.” 

Crops have battled months of rain, waterlogged soils and an influx of slugs.

“I’ve slug-pelleted the wheat three times now. Yields will certainly be down and hopes of a 10t/ha wheat crop look unlikely.

“I only managed to roll two fields, which are looking by far the best. Thankfully, we managed to apply a pre-emergence spray in the autumn.”

Spring plans

Andrew’s next move will be to get fertiliser on his 60ha of winter wheat, when conditions allow. He intends to do three splits of ammonium nitrate starting from February/early March.

He also plans to sow spring linseed on an area of high blackgrass pressure land, but notes that seed availability is slim and costs are high.

“It looks like the weather has finally settled and we’re now forecast a prolonged dry spell,” he says. “We still have flooded areas in fields, so a dry spell is exactly what we need. A few frosts should also help with crop senescence and slug pressure.

The farm is predominantly planted to the CS AB15 two-year legume fallow option (about 90ha), which pays £593/ha.

That is now in its second year, and to make the most of it Andrew intends to follow this with a first and second wheat, if market prices improve. However, his decision will be reliant on a positive outlook for the wheat market.

Take a look at the video footage below taken by Andrew in the aftermath of Storm Henk for a sense of the damage caused by flooding in recent weeks.

Richard Bower, Lower Drayton Farm, Staffordshire

The economics of arable farming is set for a challenging year as grain prices continue to fall and crops get off to a soggy start, says Staffordshire mixed farmer Richard Bower.

Richard managed to get 80% of his planned winter cereals planted, despite receiving more than 100mm of rain in October for the fifth consecutive year. 

“It’s not a stellar crop – we’ve had non-stop rain from November to December, so in some fields we left the headlands and particularly wet patches,” he says.

Some of the farm’s highest-yielding wheat crops are planted after pumpkins, but unfortunately soil conditions in early November did not permit drilling.

The pumpkin patch diversification attracts 20,000 visitors each year and is Richard’s most profitable crop on the farm.

Farming on the edge of the River Penk near Penkridge, Richard expects flooding on some of his 40ha of permanent pasture up to four times a year, but the river burst its banks five times in December alone.

Farmers are resilient 

“As farmers we are resilient. Managing what we have in the field is key. Now the rain has finally stopped with some blue skies on the horizon, we’re feeling more positive,” he says.

 “In previous years, we’ve had fantastic looking crops this time of year which have soon turned the other way with bad drought or too much rain in the early summer, so, hopefully, we can keep this year’s crop going.”

Richard plans to get an application of digestate onto crops as early as possible and when soil conditions allow.

Supplying a readily available food source of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and organic matter should kick-start crops into action.

Digestate has been part of the agronomy programme at Lower Drayton Farm for the past decade. This has cut overall artificial fertiliser requirements by about 80%.

The Bower family have also invested in on-farm lagoon storage to take digestate from local anaerobic digesters, and is often paid for the privilege, especially in a wet winter like this one. 

Richard hopes fertiliser prices start to fall more in line with the five-year average, restoring profit margins. “We haven’t sold any wheat forward as prices need to increase before we consider that,” he says.

As on many farms, spring cropping will be on the rise this year. Richard is increasing his area of spring barley and maize, which will supply local dairy farms.

Billy Lewis, Boycefield Farm, Herefordshire

Despite battling slugs and intense rainfall, Billy Lewis’s winter wheat has come through the wet weather remarkably well at Boycefield Farm. However, winter oats have been a completely different story.

“A couple of wheat fields have been underwater for months and are looking a bit patchy, but overall the wheat has pulled through. It’s good to see the direct drill faring well in these weather conditions,” Billy says.

However, the same cannot be said for winter oats, where the entire 10ha of crop has failed, even though it was drilled on the same day as some of the wheat.

In discussions with his agronomist, Billy believes wheat is more resilient in wet conditions than oats.

“When we planted the oats it rained continuously for a month,” he says. “Oats tend to absorb the water in the soil and swell up so they become unviable, whereas the wheat has a higher tolerance.”

In place of the oat crop, Billy is opting for two Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) options: a herbal ley and a wildflower mix.

“We did consider growing a spring cereal as I think cereal straw may be in short supply this year, but with the risk of spring droughts and crop margins not stacking up, it was not worth the risk. We are increasing stock numbers on the farm, so the SFI options not only provide forage but also a guaranteed income,” he says.

Billy is aiming for a total N application between 50-100kg N/ha across the wheat, with an early application to “wake crops up”.

Last year, he successfully grew crops with just 100kg N/ha and hopes to use sap analysis to target N rates further.

Now the weather is drying up, attention is turning to drilling spring beans. Lambs are currently grazing cover crops ahead of planting.

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