Fallow fields may help repair woes of a wet winter

Faced with waterlogged spring soils and autumn drilling down by a fifth, arable farmers may be thinking of fallowing land. Farmers Weekly gauges the enthusiasm for fallowing around the key arable areas of Britain

Scottish Borders

Colin McGregor is earmarking nearly 150ha for fallowing this year as he believes late-sown spring crops will delay harvest and put his following crops at risk.

More than a third of his winter cereals were not drilled in an extremely wet autumn and although spring cropping will take up most of the slack, some fields will be fallowed.

“It is tempting to keep drilling spring crops to make up the shortfall, but anything after April will simply put back harvest and compromise establishing a decent winter crop next year on our heavy land,” says Mr McGregor.

A threefold increase in spring wheat and barley will help make up for most of the fall in autumn drilling but some of his soils are “sad and anaerobic” and these will stay fallow.

“We need a dry February to make headway on soil preparation and spring drilling. There is still all to play for with spring crops, but soil conditions will have to significantly improve to fulfil yield potential,” he says.

His plan envisages 143ha of fallow on his near-3,000ha of managed land in the Scottish Borders at Coldstream Mains, near Berwick-on-Tweed.

This fallowed land will see remedial sub-soiling when dry enough and be sown with cover crops such as mustard to soak up moisture and improve soil fertility ready for autumn drilling.

Changing weather patterns have prompted the 2011 Farmers Weekly Arable Farmer of the Year into rotational changes to give him more time to drill his oilseed rape.

“In the past we have established 90% of oilseed rape after winter wheat. Going forward we will drill more winter barley to gain time for oilseed rape because we cannot afford to compromise establishment and yield,” he adds.

North-west England

Fallowing on the fertile peaty soils close to the Lancashire coast would throw up a forest of weeds so Martin Lawrenson has ruled out this option in favour of more spring cropping.

He missed drilling all his planned 20ha of winter wheat last autumn, grown as a break for his potato and carrot crops, due to very wet conditions.

His organic soils are simply too fertile to contemplate leaving a bare field over the summer and so he will be topping up his area of spring cereal cropping.

“Fallowing is not an option as we would end up with a massive field of weeds on our organic soils,” he says from his 140ha Northwoods Farm, just north of Blackpool.

With potatoes still to lift and half his carrots in the ground, Mr Lawrenson says he has just witnessed the hardest year he has ever known on the farm.

“It would have been a waste of money to try and drill winter wheat as we still had potatoes in the soil and the land was flooded,” he says.

Western England

Jon Parker is planning to fallow up to 80ha of his heavy clay land which he manages in Warwickshire as it is unlikely to dry out completely by the early spring.

Fallowing started to look attractive with only a fraction of his winter wheat drilled and switching to spring crops not an easy option on the heaviest of his soils.

He manages 1,200ha of combinable crops in a tight winter wheat-oilseed rape rotation on largely medium to heavy soils with a significant blackgrass weed problem.

“It has been a very difficult year, and fallowing is an option as there is no point in forcing land in the spring,” he says.

Mr Parker manages 1,500ha of land at Ragley Home Farms, near Stratford-upon-Avon.

There is an obvious loss in income from fallowing, but his heavy land was really wet in November and December and turned slurry-like just below the surface.

The land destined to be fallowed was worked in the autumn, so he will aim to keep weeds under control through the season and then have an early entry into winter oilseed rape.

Most of his 600ha of oilseed rape was well established and is likely to survive, but only 160ha of his 600ha of winter wheat was drilled and half of that is likely to be abandoned after slug damage.

The majority of land not drilled to winter wheat will go into spring wheat rather than spring barley on his heavy land, but this will still leave some fields too wet to drill.

“We need about six weeks for our soils to dry out and we doubt whether some of our really heavy soils will be in a state to drill,” he says.

South-west England

West Country farmer Steve Lee is still busy trying to drill winter wheat this month in the worst conditions he has ever seen, although fallowing is not really an option on his rented land in Devon and Cornwall.

He has drilled around 240ha of winter wheat and barley, or only around half his planned area on his 685ha of land which ranges from light loams to heavy sticky clays.

“Conditions are terrible. We are trying to drill on heavy land but we shouldn’t really be drilling at all,” he says.

Most of his land not drilled to winter cereals will go into spring barley and grain maize, he adds from his base near Crediton in central Devon.

“These are the worst conditions I’ve seen and we have the nightmare situation of trying to drill as much as possible,” he says.

Further east, James Stafford has 30-40% of his 200ha farm drilled with autumn cereals when the percentage is usually more like 85%.

His soils in west Wiltshire range from silty clay loams to free-draining brash and he managed to drill oilseed rape on the lighter ones, but came unstuck with his wheat and barley on the heavier ones.

He will swing towards spring barley to make up the deficit as he needs barley for his beef unit and does not expect to follow the fallowing option.

“We have never been unable to drill on our farm so fallowing is not really an option while we will need barley for the livestock,” he says. Mr Stafford farms at Pickwick Lodge Farm, near Corsham just west of Chippenham.

North-east England

Andrew Gloag believes fallowing will not help his heavy fertile soils in North Yorkshire as he recalls his experiences under previous set- aside programmes.

“Our experience from set-aside is that our soils tend to slump and they need some cropping to maintain a good structure,” he says.

Then, it was better growing industrial crops of winter wheat and oilseed rape rather than leave his heavy clay loams idle.

He manages around 1,400ha of land in the shadow of the North York Moors, south of Middlesbrough, with yields of winter wheat topping 10t/ha in good years.

Last autumn he was 65% drilled up with oilseed rape, winter wheat and barley, which may fall to 55% when he fully assesses some poor crops coming out of winter.

He expects to make up the lost area with spring barley and spring beans, and hopes his barley will yield up to 7t/ha.

“With commodity prices where they are, and provided we get a drilling window before the end of the first week of April then we see a good return from spring cropping,” he says.

“From our experience of set- aside, we are keen on cropping rather than fallowing,” he adds from his Busby House Farm, near Stokesley.

Eastern England

Fallowing is the very last option for Cambridgeshire farmer Edd Banks as uncropped land loses soil structure and there is obviously no resultant crop to sell.

“Under fallowing, wet land only gets wetter and at the end of the fallow there is no end product, so it would be the last thing we consider,” he says.

He manages 1,100ha of land running from boulder clay to chalky soils five miles south-west of Cambridge with 80%-plus down to winter crops.

Mr Banks completed his planned 900ha of autumn drilling of winter wheat and oilseed rape, but suspects 100ha of his late-drilled, poorly established, second wheats will be ripped out and re-drilled with spring barley.

His first wheats looked “beautiful” as they were drilled in mid to late September, but the drilling of his second wheats was delayed to control blackgrass, and they suffered from heavy rains in October and November.

He argues that growing a spring crop will help with drainage and soil structure, and Mr Banks will be aiming for a spring barley yield of 6t/ha.

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