Dealing with the fallout from the drought

A weed is a wild flower in the wrong place – or so some would have us believe. Well this year we’ve got rather a lot of misplaced wild flowers.

A couple of months ago, before it rained, our combinable crops and sugar beet were clean, with hardly a sign of a wild flower. OK, some of them were thin and suffering from the drought, but they were free of weeds. That state of affairs no longer applies.

The rain fell too late to improve yield prospects, but it was not too late to germinate the dormant seeds of plants which we are happy to have on conservation headlands but would rather not see in the middle of fields. They have since grown at breakneck speed to exceed the height of some crops, and with unsettled weather continuing here in the east, delaying what we thought would be an earlier harvest, these unwelcome invaders are in danger of interfering with combining.

We can, of course, spray cereals with pre-harvest Roundup, or similar, but that’s another expense which the anticipated poor yield won’t really stand. Then again, it may be necessary to spray some in any case where secondary growth in tramlines and the like will otherwise make it impossible to gather an even vaguely saleable sample. So I suppose we can deal with both problems at once.

But it’s not so easy with sugar beet, which looked pristine a few weeks ago but which are now sprouting a variety of plants between the roots that will reduce yield and cause problems for harvesting if not dealt with. We’ve opted to chop them off level with the top leaves rather than spend more on chemicals, in the hope they won’t grow to troublesome sizes again. One way or another, 2011 is a year we would rather forget.

But news from around the country suggests things are not as bad in some areas where even modest amounts of rain fell at crucial times. Here in Norfolk a good start has been made on winter barleys with variable reports of yields. Most are down 20% to 30%, but the quality of most is poor with many samples being rejected for malting either for high nitrogen content, low bushel weights, green grains or all three.

Oil seed rape, on the other hand, seems to be doing surprisingly well, with several reports of yields in the region of 3.75t/ha, although moistures have been higher than growers would have liked. What little wheat has been done appears to have yielded reasonably well and not far below budget. But there are suggestions that those done so far may be the best and that there is worse to come.

In all cases, drilling dates and effectiveness of establishment last autumn seem to be the key. Later drillings didn’t get their roots down far enough before the spring drought struck and what they have produced has disappointed.

As I write we’re just about to tackle our dry peas, weather permitting. They looked good through most of the drought, only flagging towards the end of it. Like most other crops, however, especially spring drillings, there’s some secondary growth and the soft peas that have resulted will cause problems in the barn. But we can’t wait for them to get fit or we’ll lose the main bulk of the crop. And in any case I’ve had a belly full of trying to keep the pigeons off them.

From that viewpoint it’ll be a relief when whatever yield we’ve grown is in the barn.

How are your yields faring compared to David’s? Follow harvest progress across the UK online

David Richardson farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.

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