• Written by Andrew Davis
  • Posted on Dec 18, 2020
  • Articles

An exceptionally wet autumn last year led to further extreme weather throughout the growing season and the worst harvest for decades.  Farmers with long memories reckoned that they had not seen such poor yields since the severe drought of 1976.  This autumn has also brought above average rainfall, October was the fifth wettest on record, but the situation is far less dire than a year ago.

After a relatively dry summer, early seedbeds for autumn drilling were reasonably good.  Some land was left fallow over the summer following crop failures and some followed early harvested crops such as winter rye.  Remembering last year when many autumn crops could not be planted due to waterlogged soils, farmers were keen to get crops in the ground.  Thus many crops were sown before the deluge in October and have established well, whilst others were drilled in drier spells in October and early November.  Despite the rain, soils absorbed the water and remained workable for some time.  November was drier but there has been sufficient rainfall this autumn that the Lambourn winterbourne is running already, a couple of months earlier than usual.

The area of oilseed rape has been falling since the ban on neonicotinoids insecticides and has taken another big hit this autumn.  Indeed, at an estimated 318,000 hectares, it is the lowest area since 1986.  Ironically, most crops that were planted went in early and have established remarkably well ahead of attack by flea beetle.  However, eggs will have been laid in the stems and the beetle may cause yet cause devastation in the spring.  Farmers that persist are learning how to cope without an effective insecticide against the pest, some using a nurse crop, sowing rape with another brassica such as mustard that establishes very quickly and acts as a decoy.

The problem of not growing rape is what to grow as an alternative break crop.  Some farmers are trying winter sown linseed to see whether that might fill the gap.  It has the advantage of harvest in July or early August and a range of herbicides can be used to control weeds.  It is not a brassica and thus not susceptible to cabbage stem flea beetle but it does have its own pest, large flax flea beetle.  However, these are not active in winter and thus only a problem in spring sown varieties.

Linseed is not used for human consumption but is an increasingly popular ingredient of animal feeds for its high Omega-3 content.  Proponents claim a yield of up to 3.75 tonnes per hectare but 2.5 to 3 tonnes is a more realistic estimate.  Linseed prices over the past five years have ranged from £275 to £425 per tonne, generally with a 10% to 30% premium over the price of rape.  It is not a legume and thus not restorative but it is a break from cereals, although it does have a reputation of not being an easy crop to grow.  No doubt, if it is successful, techniques will improve.

There has been a fair area of winter barley sown whilst the area of winter wheat is much larger than last year, not surprising considering the weather last autumn.  Cereals have established well with little disease or other problems.  Blackgrass does not appear to be such a threat this autumn perhaps because fewer seed were shed last summer due to the disruption to cropping.  The area sown to winter rye for Anaerobic Digestion plants is also significant and has the advantage of being cut before blackgrass can shed seed.  There is also a greater understanding of how to use the available herbicides in combination to control it, including a return of Avadex, a chemical that was in use even in my farming days decades ago!

There may be little disease in cereals at present but some of the newer varieties of winter wheat are susceptible to yellow rust.  The fungicides are very good at controlling it but it can be devastating if not caught in time.  Septoria is a bigger problem in that the chemicals are not so effective.

There is a big head of steam building up behind the growing of winter cover crops ahead of a spring cash crop.  This has significant benefits for soil health and fertility as well as minimising soil erosion, but they tend to be cumulative over a number of years.  More effective is a cover crop, particularly one containing legumes, that is grown for a year or even longer but that has cost implications.  It is hoped that improving soil health and fertility by such means will attract grants under the Sustainable Farming Initiative, the first part of the Environmental Land Management Scheme due to the introduced in 2022.

Growing a winter cover crop is good but there is then the problem of establishing a spring seedbed.  Ploughing in the trash may make that easier but it destroys many of the benefits of growing the cover crop.  A few hard frosts and the use of glyphosate helps but there is still the trash on the surface and the risk of slugs.  Then there is the choice of crop.  Spring beans or peas improve soil fertility but are variable and beans late to harvest.  Spring rape is not a good option, linseed not much better.  So it largely comes down to a cereal, barley or oats.

Livestock numbers in this area have fallen dramatically over the years.  There were once over a hundred dairy herds between Marlborough and Windsor but that is now down to single figures.  There are still sheep and beef but they are largely confined to permanent pasture.  Grass growth has been good this autumn so ewes should have been well flushed for tupping.  Nevertheless it is sad to see the major decline in grazing livestock in the landscape.