At last it has stopped raining. Indeed, after months of apparently interminable rain with devastating floods, we have enjoyed the first taste of spring. Slowly, the ground has started to dry up, helped by easterly winds. Growth is accelerating although it barely stopped in a winter that broke records for temperature as well as rainfall. The sound of lawn mowers can be heard across the country although that might be a reflection of self-isolation at home as much as rapid spring growth.
Taking stock, Mick Robinson, friend and agronomist, thinks that the current situation for farmers this spring is the worst ever in his long experience. Very few farmers completed their planned autumn planting and some, especially on heavy land, hardly drilled any wheat at all. Huge areas of farmland were flooded and are still wet and compacted. An image that sums it up was of a Lincolnshire farmer interviewed on Countryfile. They walked across a field that had recently been flooded and stopped for a moment. Whilst they were talking, the farmer had sunk into the ground above his ankles!
What should be done now with all the bare land? Or, come to that, with all the autumn seed still sitting in the barn? We are lucky in this area to have chalk soils that are relatively easy to work and no doubt spring crops have been sown in the last week or two. But, on heavy land, the choices are stark. If the land is ploughed or deep cultivated, great clods of claggy soil will bake solid making a fine seedbed impossible.
Some are turning to direct drilling or minimal tillage to counter this problem but soils are so compacted that this is unlikely to be successful. In any case, it is late in the season to sow crops with any expectation of a reasonable yield. Agronomists suggest that 10th to 20th March is the latest window for spring planting. Anything after that used to be called ‘cuckoo barley’ in the days when there were cuckoos.
If all the bare land is to be planted, there will be a severe shortage of seed. For many the best option is to fallow the land or, even better, to sow a cover crop and work to rectify the damage to soil structure. A cover crop that includes legumes and fodder radish with its large deep tap roots will improve both soil structure and fertility.
What of the crops that were planted last autumn? Oilseed rape is a complete disaster according to Mick Robinson. Since the ban on neonicotinoid insecticide seed dressings, many crops of rape have failed, destroyed by cabbage stem flea beetle. Even those that have survived are at risk as the flea beetles have laid their eggs in the stems of the rape. When they hatch into larvae, the stems will be so weakened that the crops are likely to fall over.
Many wheat and barley crops have survived well on lighter soils although they are patchy, especially on headlands, due to compaction of the ground. They have lost tillers and so are rather thin but we have seen good yields from thin crops given good conditions in the rest of the growing season, 1984 being the best example. However, root systems will be shallow due to the waterlogged soil so yields might be affected by drought if we have a dry summer.
Wheats look a little blue from cold and need warm weather and nitrogen to kick start growth. This, in itself, is a problem as air pollution becomes a priority, especially nitrogen gases coming from fertilizer. Further regulation appears inevitable, perhaps even the banning of urea as a nitrate source.
The latest estimates from AHDB (Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board) put this year’s wheat crop at between 9 and 12.5 million tonnes. Even taking the mid-point of 10.75 million tonnes, it would be the lowest for at least twenty years. In a normal year, production is 12 to 16 mt and consumption 14 to 16 mt. 1 to 2 million tonnes are imported and a surplus of up to 3 mt are exported. This year, home supply is unlikely to match demand so more will have to be imported although carry-over stocks may make up the shortfall.
As I walk my dog, tractors roar across fields mostly applying fertilizer to wheat and grass. It really feels spring-like with the hedges bursting into leaf. Lambing is in full swing, the sunshine ideal for turning ewes and lambs out to pasture. It is too early to get any reliable indication of success but I have heard that numbers may be a little down on average. There was plenty of grass last autumn to flush the ewes but it was lush with little nutritional value.
In these troubled times, we need to find reasons to be cheerful. Arable farmers on the chalk in this area are in much better position than those on heavier ground to the north and east. The price of wheat has been creeping up with the prospect of a poor harvest so those farmers who can achieve good yields will do well. Otherwise we should write this year off as an annus horribilis and hope for a better 2021. The important thing is to keep cheerful and carry on!