West: Contrasting soil conditions

A welcome spell of dry weather has allowed some progress in the fields. Very late winter wheat and oats have been drilled, and a start to drilling spring barley and beans has been made. But spring rarely starts till after Cheltenham week.

There is a large contrast between the best and worst soil conditions. The heavy clays are the most difficult, but even some lighter soils have had problems. It is now 40 years since the last major drainage investment of the 1970’s.

On most oilseed rape crops there is little growth, and nitrogen/sulphur fertilisers have been applied. Applications of graminicides have been completed, and some bifenox has been applied.  Crop management will be complicated by the damaged headlands and ponding within fields.

Little winter wheat was drilled last autumn, and even less treated with autumn herbicide. Luckily weed levels are lower than usual. We are now waiting for warmer growing conditions to allow spring grass and broad-leaved weed control.

Crop nutrition will be vital this spring, as many nutrients such as N, S and K have been leached. Spring application of phosphate, which is immobile in the soil, may also be beneficial.

With soils being in poor condition, there is interest in rebuilding soil organic matter. This is nothing new – but emphasises the wisdom of previous generations of farmers who maybe took more care of it.  Increased usage of organic manures is planned. There is also interest in swapping straw for farmyard manure and also in the use of cover crops where a summer fallow is planned. Inevitably there are costs involved, but there should be benefits in the future.

Adding grass leys into the rotation might be the best solution, but I don’t expect this to happen in 2013.

However, we have to acknowledge that the solutions we need don’t always come in a 10 litre can.

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