Drought lookout proves a pleasant surprise

I drove from Norfolk almost to Lancashire and back to fulfil a speaking engagement last week.

Thinking of the drought, I looked for suffering crops and grass on the way – but I was surprised and pleased that the whole country looked good. There was no frost burn from the sharp frosts of early February, which often last into March. The mild spell since has masked it with green growth and the nitrogen left in the soil through lack of winter rain is doing its job. The drought is not yet obvious from the state of crops.

During the entire journey, I saw only one herd of cows out at grass and that was beside the M6 north of Manchester, where I thought the land would have been too wet. Nor was much arable work being done beside the route. One exception was a field of potatoes being planted, again further north than I’d have expected, and the odd field being worked down for spring planting. For the record, cereals, grass and roadside daffodils were a few days further forward in Lancashire than in Norfolk.

As I drove I couldn’t resist feeling a bit smug. Back home on our farm we had walked the fields intended for sugar beet on 28 February to see how soon we might be able to drill them. We’d gone earlier last year than ever before, in mid-March, and it turned out well because the seeds benefited from the last significant rainfall we had last spring and summer. Germination and early growth was excellent and, as we now know, the crop yielded far better than expected despite lack of rain.

And the early ploughed land, as we approached the end of February this year, was just as dry and friable as it had been a few weeks later last year. We decided to get the job done, whatever the date, while the land was in such good condition. We started pulling down on 29 February and with one pass made a good seedbed. We finished drilling at 6pm on 2 March – just as the first few drops of rain started to fall.

We had 50mm that weekend – the first sustained rain for 18 months – and our newly drilled fields lapped it up. By the time you read this, those sugar beet seedlings should be on the point of emerging. If there’s any justice – and the summer isn’t too dry – we should be on track for another decent crop. Incidentally, that 50mm of rain only fell on that part of East Anglia that sticks out into the North Sea. Forty miles west of us, 10mm to 15mm was the norm so we were incredibly lucky.

The other thing we think we got right during that last week of February was to spread almost all our first top dressings on the autumn drilled cereals. Whether we’ll need as much as usual this year given the residues of N in the soil we shall have to assess later. But we felt it was a good idea to get the first batch on while there was a chance it would be washed in.

All in all, as a non-irrigating farm, we believe our crops can survive for several weeks even without much more rain. But I must be careful not to tempt fortune. And I sympathise with potato and field veg growers with half empty reservoirs who have had to cut back their cropping because they know they won’t have enough water.

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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