I have resisted the temptation to write a spoof piece this week in recognition of today’s date, but I am reminded of a splendid April Fool two or three years ago when grouse shooting in Essex was advertised on the GunsOnPegs website! Now that April is here, signs of spring are appearing with buds breaking and early blossom. It has been a relatively kind winter with only a brief cold spell in February. Despite heavy rain in October, the autumn allowed the sowing and establishment of winter crops, which have come through the winter well.
The area of oilseed rape has shrunk yet further, now estimated at 318,000 hectares, the lowest since 1986, as farmers give up trying to grow it without neonicotinoid seed dressing to control flea beetle. Most crops were drilled early and, whilst some were lost again, the majority look strong. That is likely to be an illusion, however, as flea beetles lay their eggs in the stems of the rape and the larvae cause severe damage when they emerge in the spring.
There has been renewed interest in winter barley as the newer hybrid varieties yield well and are relatively easy to grow. With the straw as a valuable by-product, the crop spreads harvest and can be profitable. After last year’s extremely difficult growing season with land sown late in the spring or fallowed, there was the opportunity to plant more winter wheat and the area is significantly greater than in 2020.
On the whole, wheat crops look well and are now growing away once they have received an application of nitrate fertiliser. One concern is yellow rust, a disease to which some newer varieties are susceptible, especially as some fungicidal seed dressings can no longer be used. Fungicide sprays are effective against yellow rust, however, and new chemicals and new mixtures of existing chemicals are coming onto the market. Septoria is more difficult to control but is not a threat at present.
With the area of oilseed rape so much reduced, the search is on for alternative break crops. Some farmers have tried winter linseed but it is not very winter hardy and is killed by frost perhaps two years in five. It may survive a mild wet winter but then there is the risk of botrytis! The area of winter beans is a little down this year, mainly because of the larger area of winter wheat.
Spring drilling has not been easy. There has been dry weather so cereals have been sown on light chalk soils but heavier land is still wet and cold. It is also compacted or capped which makes direct drilling or minimum tillage less effective. The technique is right in the context of climate change but only works with good soil structure and plenty of organic matter. The problem with ploughing or deep cultivation is that it brings up claggy lumps that bake hard making it very difficult to achieve a seedbed. Barley should have been drilled by now but it has been the classic balancing act of timeliness or waiting for better conditions.
The break crop dilemma continues in spring. Spring rape is not an attractive option. The price of linseed is high but it is susceptible to large flax flea beetle. As the climate continues to warm, other break crops come into consideration. There have been attempts to grow soya bean, not very successful as yet, whilst sunflowers continue their march north from the Paris Basin. Pulses may be the best option and have the advantage of being excellent restorative crops, but spring beans are late to harvest whilst the profitability of both peas and beans is questionable.
Aphids spread many virus diseases and numbers have been in the news recently. After last year’s devastation of the sugar beet crop by virus yellows, a derogation was announced on the use of neonicotinoid seed dressing subject to certain strict conditions. One was that the population of aphids had to be sufficient to cause a potential 9% loss of crop. In the event, the risk was put at 8% so the seed dressing cannot be used. It was assumed that frost reduced the aphid numbers, but they can hibernate in the soil to reappear in spring, so it remains to be seen whether that was a sound judgement. Oats are susceptible to barley yellow dwarf virus, also spread by aphids, so sugar beet is not the only crop at risk.
After last year’s very disappointing harvest, grain prices remain high and carry-over stocks will be very low. Although prices will undoubtedly fall at harvest, not least due to the larger area of winter wheat planted, there is room for optimism with crops looking well as the main growing season approaches.
Grass growth is very variable this spring with little prospect of an early turn-out for cattle. There is now a shortage of fodder with palatability poor, so a surge of grass growth is needed. The number of dairy herds continues to decline with the sale of the Waitrose herd at Leckford. Lambing is now underway but it is too early to get any indication of numbers. There was grass growth last autumn to flush the ewes, but quality was questionable, so time will tell how effective it was. One bright spot is that prices of both beef cattle and lambs are high, giving good returns, although the price of pigmeat is depressed.
As the weather picks up over the next few weeks, so spirits will soar, especially if the good pandemic news continues. For those on heavy land, there is still the problem of spring drilling but autumn crops are forging ahead and we must hope for a good season to come. At least, it cannot be as bad as last year.