Farmer Focus: Not viable to crop headlands at current prices

My wish last time for a benevolent autumn has certainly not come true, as we, like much of the country, have had over 160mm of rain in the past five weeks.

Harvest finished shortly after my last article with the standout performer of harvest 2019, winter beans, averaging a very pleasing 6.3t/ha. Even at current prices quoted for feed this gives a very healthy margin.

We were fortunate enough to plant 55ha of wheat after OSR in excellent conditions in the last dry week in September. Since then we have managed only a further 8ha of our autumn drilling campaign.

See also: Top tips for high yielding late-drilled wheat crops

One thing that has become more apparent, although obvious, is that well-structured soils coming out of long-term pasture have allowed us to drill when everywhere else wouldn’t go.

I definitely think that in comparison with the wet autumns of 2012 and 2013, most of our land has improved in absorbing and infiltrating large volumes of water.

In seeing these benefits, my patience is holding out for dryer conditions to, hopefully, continue establishing our winter cereals using the strip-till drill. However, this is easier said than done.   

With improved infiltration comes the need for adequate drainage and running ditches. The need now is to get water back to where it should be with functioning infrastructure as quickly as possible.

Drainage grants would definitely be a popular capital works item in any future grant schemes.

Having plenty of time over the past few weeks I have also decided that, unless conditions change significantly, we are not going to plant any headlands, as these are currently our limiting factor.

I’ve calculated that the yield potential of turning headlands won’t exceed the break-even point (at current prices), so I cannot see the point in wasting our time.

Even when calculated over the whole potential area, the maintained higher yield in the middle of the fields and lower input cost due to not applying any sprays to headlands gives a better margin per hectare.

It also allows us to increase our seed rates without the need to purchase any more seed.  

Leaving them uncropped will also allow us to carry out remedial work and potentially treat headlands with organic matter when conditions are right in late spring/early summer ready for next year’s crop.

My concern is that if we maul them in now and we have a late wet harvest next year, yield limitations could roll over into another year, and headlands are a large proportion of our area.

Fingers crossed we all get going soon, but on the positive side I am sure everyone has managed to watch a lot more of the Rugby World Cup than they were expecting to!

Jack Hopkins is the assistant farm manager on a 730ha estate in North Herefordshire on predominantly silty clay loam soils. Cropping includes wheat, barley, oilseed rape, spring oats and peas, plus grassland which supports a flock of 1,100 ewes and 25 pedigree Hereford cattle.


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