Archive Article: 1998/06/26

26 June 1998


Rain, rain go

away…as the rain and

uncertain weather

continue, this year

looks like a repeat

performance of 1997

I hope I am wrong, but summer 1998 seems to be turning out like summer 1997. And no one needs reminding what that did to crop yields and quality. With all the other problems, farming faces an expensive harvest would seem perverse. But we have even less chance of changing the weather than of changing government policy or the strength of sterling, so we will have to live with whatever comes.

As I write, on the longest day of the year, the sun is shining, the temperature is in the mid-70s and I wish I were outside instead of bashing this out on my word processor. But there was a little rain yesterday, a lot the day before, and weve had 4.5in during June so far. As I saw for myself last week we have been lucky to escape with that. Around Newcastle, average rainfall this month to date was nearer 7.5in. Water was standing in every tramline and lakes had formed in low places on every field.

Surprisingly I saw little lodging of cereals, although a lot of rape had gone down. Whether it was because northern farmers had used less nitrogen I cannot say. Perhaps they had decided to give new fungicides a miss.

I read unsubstantiated but worrying allegations by some agronomists that while strobilurins are excellent at controlling disease they appear to predispose crops to lodging. Or they may just have been lucky and missed the really heavy downpours. Whatever the reason most crops in the north were still upright.

The severest crop damage I saw on my travels was north of Cambridge and to a lesser extent south of Ipswich. Whole fields have gone down in places with only a few ears standing alongside tramlines. A difficult and expensive harvest is in prospect for the farmers involved. All of which means that my neighbours and myself should consider ourselves fortunate. Apart from the odd patch near a headland where a double application of fertiliser may have been applied our cereals are standing well. May they continue to do so until harvest.

Sugar beet, of course, has been loving the rain. After a slow start, in spite of generally early drilling in mid-March, most crops round here are now looking quite promising. The rule of thumb which we East Anglians use to judge prospects for our beet is as follows: If the leaves meet across the rows by the Suffolk Show (at the beginning of June) we expect bumper yields; if they do so by the Norfolk Show (next Wednesday and Thursday) yields will be average. Its all about percentage of leaf cover over the land before the hot dry days (we hope!) of July. But unscientific traditional judgments are usually pretty reliable. In any event the leaves of most East Anglian crops met by the middle of June so we can probably expect slightly above average yields.

In Yorkshire, where drilling was delayed by bad weather, many crops were not drilled until late April. They still have some growing to do to comply with my local standards and may not turn out as well. But perhaps Yorkshire growers judge their beet by the date of the Yorkshire Show. Doubtless someone will let me know.

Meanwhile, the biggest general problem with the crop this year seems to be weed beet. I for one am looking forward to the day when we can grow genetically modified sugar beet, spray them with either glyphosate or gluphosinate, and eliminate weed beet altogether. But GM beet is another story and one which may be receding into the future as, according to recent opinion polls, the British public are reluctant to accept GM foods in the near future.

There was a forecast of serious aphid and by implication, virus yellows problems this year which has, so far failed to fully materialise. One reason is the increasing use of insecticide-treated seed which gives protection through the spring. Another is the cool conditions so far in June. As, and if, temperatures begin to rise for more than a day or two at a time we will have to be ready to spray. But once roots have reached the size they have now, aphid attack is less damaging than when crops are at the seedling stage. So, perhaps we will be able to save an input cost.

Meanwhile my main preoccupation at present is whether to cut 8ha (20 acres) of hay. Its plenty late enough already, of course, but with no weather forecast promising more than two days of fine weather in succession we have delayed and delayed. A neighbour decided to risk cutting a small field more than a month ago and in spite of turning it each time the sun peeped from behind a cloud and even attempting to bale it once – he did one bale before aborting the job – the swathes are still lying on the field looking blacker each day.

So, Im looking for a fine long-term forecast – for the hay, for the rest of the farm and for the Norfolk Show. Weve had enough rain in Norfolk until harvest.

But we have even less chance of

changing the weather than of changing government policy or the strength of sterling…

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