Sowing suffering record delays but all is not lost
By Andrew Blake and Andrew Swallow
POTATO planting is at a standstill, sugar beet drilling has hardly started, many combinable crops are still to be sown and grassweed control is slipping badly as cold, wet conditions persist.
"Its not a pretty picture," says ADASs national arable co-ordinator John Garstang. " People were relying on getting in with spring barley early, but the ground has been so cold and wet I cant see any way that total cereal production isnt going to be pegged back."
Many crops will not be sown until April and delays could see yields slip by 0.5t/ha. That is a big worry for growers who had hoped spring barley yields would partly offset lower winter wheat production.
Last season, when spring barley averaged 5.2t/ha, 30% of the East Anglian crop was sown by the end of February. "This year only 20% was in by then and there is a much bigger overall area to do," says Mr Garstang.
By contrast, sugar beet and potato specialists believe root crops have lost little yield potential, despite one of the slowest starts on record.
Potato planting is further behind than ever before, acknowledges Rob Burrow of the BPC. "The total is only just over 1400ha and there has been very little progress in the past two weeks."
Sugar beet is faring no better, reports British Sugars Paul Bee. "Less than 5% was drilled as of last weekend." That compares with 52% at the same date last year and 41% in 1998.
But in 1999 only 7% was drilled by now and that still made a good crop, he says. "Our advice is to drill as soon as you can, as and when conditions allow. That caveat is very important. Up to Apr 10 there is every chance of getting a good crop."
If seed-beds are less than ideal, growers should reduce in-row spacing to 15cm (6in) and increase crop area where reaching quota could be in doubt.
Mr Burrow also advises waiting for reasonable conditions before planting potatoes. "In a good week 20-25,000ha can go in. We can soon catch up."
But any real progress is unlikely until early April and only then if the weather improves. "It does need a fair, drying period to get the thing going again," he admits.
There is less concern for yield penalties in other spring crops. "Spring rape in a warm seed-bed can go like a train, but late-sown beans may suffer delayed ripening. On the positive side, disease pressure may be less," says Mr Garstang
With only 35-40% of winter cereals having received a herbicide, time is fast running out for good blackgrass control, especially in winter barley, says Steve Wolff, Banks Cargill crop protection director.
Heavy seed return as much as immediate yield loss is the main downside. "But the real problem is that farmers have so much work to do and foot-and-mouth isnt helping. Its straining our ability to get round and supply logistics could become a nightmare." *
• Barley sowing frustrated.
• Blackgrass control slipping.
• Delivery logistics nightmare.
• Record late potato planting.
• Sugar beet under 5% sown.