Fallowing to rise as rain falls on waterlogged soil

Land left fallow is set to jump by a third this year as nearly half the arable growers in a Farmers Weekly survey said they might leave fields uncropped.

Faced with waterlogged soils and wet weather, some 45% of the 500 farmers who responded said leaving fields fallow until the autumn was an option.

The amount of fallowed land is now expected to leap to around 200,000ha this summer, or the equivalent of half a million football pitches left idle.

This could push fallowed land to just over 4% of the UK’s arable cropping area which was almost 4.6m hectares last year and well above a potato crop of 149,000ha.

With autumn crop drilling down by a fifth due to appalling weather, many will swing towards spring sowings, but others on heavy soils will give cropping a miss.

Two of seven farmers contacted by Farmers Weekly had clear plans to fallow land while others said they needed to grow spring cereals for their livestock.

For those with problems such as pernicious weeds like blackgrass, very tight oilseed rape rotations and wet soils which have turned porridge-like, then fallowing seems attractive .

For others who rent land, need grain and straw for stock and have hefty machinery and manpower costs then doing nothing is not an option.

“With the physical difficulties of getting a crop in this spring, fallowing could be a viable option for some farmers and the area could easily be up by a third,” said NFU chief arable adviser Guy Gagen.

Despite grain and oilseed rape prices staying firm, some believe that late drilling on sticky clay land in the spring may damage soil structure and lead to troubles ahead.

For the two farmers favouring fallowing in the Scottish borders and Warwickshire with heavy land and high rainfall, they worry that late-sown spring crops will delay harvest and autumn drilling.

Colin McGregor and Jon Parker have one eye on their waterlogged soils and the other on ensuring an early entry for winter crops, especially oilseed rape (see p56 and 57), while others farmers shared their fallowing views on Facebook (p58).

A recent survey from crop consultants ADAS showed only 80% of autumn sowing were completed by the end of November compared with the previous year, with a further 10% of crops at risk of failure.

The biggest doubt is with late-drilled oilseed rape crops and ADAS estimates the area is 10% down on last year while a fifth of that sown could fail.

The drop in autumn drillings to around 2.5m hectares could mean a further 500,000-plus hectares of land available for spring cropping.

Industry estimates say 90%-plus of autumn drilling was completed in the arable heartland of East Anglia, but the figure fell to 65% in the wetter south-west of England.

Some are more cautious about fallowing, saying it may hit soil structure with no crop to soak up moisture and may leave machinery in the barn and a workforce idle.

“Some may be forced into fallowing this year, but we would urge farmers to think seriously about growing a crop in April,” said Mark Juniper, a partner at land agent Strutt and Parker in Banbury.

Cross compliance

Guidelines from DEFRA say fallowed land should be maintained in “good agricultural and environmental conditions” to continue with single farm scheme payments.

Ploughing is allowed if it is to control weed problems such as for blackgrass, couch or others within the general rules to prevent unwanted vegetation and maintaining habitats.