West: Heartfelt worry for flood victims

That traditional opening gambit of conversation between farmer and agronomist, the weather, has assumed a new significance. It has changed from being a conversational ice-breaker to a real cause for concern. Concern not just for the state of individuals’ own farms, but also a heartfelt worry for those whose land is under several feet of water.

I no longer look after a large acreage on the Somerset Levels. The few hundred acres I used to manage are now in the hands of conservation minded organisations, so I cannot give a firsthand report. I expect you will have seen enough media presentations to know that things are bad.

I am often asked if I am concerned by low soil nitrogen after a wet winter. My standard answer is “No!” on the grounds that if there is virtually nothing there, we know where we stand. My concerns are greater after dry winters when levels can be extremely variable.

After the wet start to the year there can be no excuses for not planning ahead! Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) requirements and nitrogen plans are firmly in place. Let’s hope we can make a start in the field soon. We have all been driving a desk for long enough. We have had time to study our satellite images of crops in some depth and have formulated variable rate early N plans, which we hope will go some way to evening out some of the variable crops out there.

Making the plans has been relatively straightforward, however, getting the various spreader makes to accept a common file type has been problematic.  Betamax, VHS, and Laser Disc video formats spring to mind.

Of all the crops we are keen to get nitrogen on winter barley is our biggest concern. Around Christmas the crop greened up, but it is now rapidly turning yellow again and we fear for shoot survival if we cannot apply N over the next two weeks. This is especially critical for hybrid varieties which rely so much on vigorous tillering to establish adequate shoot numbers.

Old mildew, rhynchosporium and net blotch are much in evidence, so it looks like a fungicide in advance of standard first dose at  Zadoks 30/31 will be needed. The weed situation in winter barley is very good as we managed to apply our Avadex (tri-allate)/flufenacet sequences in good conditions (yes, it really was dry once!).

Oilseed rape has thrived in the mild, wet conditions and we are looking at some large canopies that will require careful management; if we have an arctic March like last year this will cease to be a problem. Typically canopies are biggest where high available N manures such as poultry litter were applied. The rape has done a great job of capturing that N in the canopy to become available when rapid spring growth starts. Dare I suggest that pigeons have, so far, not been a problem?

Winter wheat is all over the place. Early sown crops are well tillered and healthy, with well established root systems. Later crops are turning “ginger” as the effects of low soil N and repeated soakings kick in.

One month to my next article. I hope I have something to write about apart from water.

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