The clocks have gone forward, the evenings are lighter and there is a distinct feeling of spring in the air. With the farming year half gone, it has been kind so far, certainly in relation to last year when the Beast from the East brought a spell of bitter weather that delayed growth.
It has been a tale of two halves. Warm dry weather in February broke all records and got the season off to an early start. Then a fortnight of storms gave some much needed rain but brought growth to a halt or, at least, a slowdown. Then, in a reprise of the warm dry weather, spring accelerated again. Hedges are coming into leaf, the blossom is out and wildlife is coming out of hibernation.
Many farmers started drilling spring crops in February, then resumed after the rain. Seedbeds are good and establishment should be rapid. Indeed some early sown crops are showing in the rows already. Winter crops have come through the winter well, with huge numbers of tillers in the cereals.
Early sown oilseed rape crops are coming into flower so the extent of yellow throughout the landscape will give an idea of the area of the crop. There has certainly been less planted over the past two or three years since the ban of neonicotinoid insecticides and there has been significant failure. One agronomist put this at 20% this year, largely due to attack by flea beetle. The damage appears to be worse on crops sown at the conventional time of early September, whilst those sown earlier in August or later appear to have suffered less.
Most varieties these days are hybrids so the seed has to be bought in each year, but there is a move back towards older varieties so that farmers can use their own seed to reduce the cost. To counter this, one plant breeder is to introduce a scheme whereby the plant breeding royalties are only paid on those crops that establish; the cost of the seed for any that fail will have to be paid but not the royalty.
Many farmers would like to abandon oilseed rape but what are the alternative break crops? The area sown to beans is thought to be increasing, partly because of the sale value. When greening was first introduced, farmers were allowed to grow protein yielding crops on their 5% Ecological Focus Areas. Indeed, they still are but the application of fertiliser and pesticides is no longer allowed so no farmers do. The result was a doubling of the sale price to around £250 per tonne that makes the crop more profitable.
There are few pest problems in winter crops. Residual herbicides seemed to work reasonably well last autumn but the issue of blackgrass resistance is so serious that farmers are using mixtures of all available chemicals. This is less of a problem in this area than in East Anglia, for example, partly because of the huge increase in crops grown for anaerobic digestion plants, notably the one near Andover. Winter rye is cut before the blackgrass can shed seed and maize is planted later in the spring so that the weed can be controlled before it is sown. There is real concern that the impact of a potential ban on glyphosate could be devastating in the fight against blackgrass and other problem weeds.
Disease pressure is not high at present but, again, there are problems of resistance and useful chemicals being withdrawn or banned. Newer varieties have much better disease resistance than older ones but septoria in wheat can cause significant yield loss and is not easy to control chemically. But farmers themselves are partly to blame for increased resistance by using low dose rates of fungicides.
The recent stormy weather notwithstanding, it has been remarkably dry over recent months. The drought last summer meant that there was little grass growth for grazing cattle and sheep leading to the early feeding of winter rations. Before the rams are turned out with the ewes in autumn, it helps to have the ewes in a rising plane of nutrition to flush eggs, important for a good lambing percentage. There were fears that the lack of fresh grass would lead to a low conception rate but, when ewes were scanned in winter, results were better than expected. It is too early to tell how lambing is progressing but early reports are of an average lambing percentage.
The Royal Agricultural University held a lambing weekend recently attracting over 600 people in the spring sunshine. Here, too, the number of lambs born appears to be a good average but there was rain in the Cotswolds in August so there was a little more grass for flushing.
Leaving aside the serious anxiety caused by the Brexit chaos, farmers have cause for cautious optimism this spring. Winter crops have good root systems whilst spring crops drilled in February will be developing roots now. This will stand in good stead if we have another drought this summer although large numbers of tillers will die back. Carry-over of winter fodder was thought to be very low but an early spring will help and recent auctions of hay and straw have not been as frenetic as expected causing prices to fall. We must hope that conditions in the second half of the farming year are as kind as the first without the constant breaking of extreme weather records. Beware the blackthorn winter! The last time there was concern about a potential drought after months of low rainfall was in 2012 and then it rained all summer!