It has been an extraordinary spring. It seems that whenever I write about the growth of farm crops, I start by describing extreme weather, perhaps we need to redefine what we expect from our climate! But this spring has brought a very dry, sunny but cold April followed by a drenching but still cold May. All sorts of records have been broken yet again.
At least wild spring flowers have enjoyed the weather as primroses, dandelions, buttercups and bluebells have all had a bumper year. One suggestion is that when a plant is under stress, especially if the season is late, it may send up more flower heads in the hope of seeding whilst it can. By mid-May, with waterlogged, very cold soils, the season seemed about three weeks behind normal. It is amazing how quickly nature can recover and the recent dry sunny weather has enabled growth to catch up. Even ticks seem to be around early in large numbers.
It is surprising that the weather has not had more of an impact on crops, especially the loss of tillers in winter cereals in the drought of April. However, that has not happened, perhaps because most established well last autumn and grew tillers before Christmas, strong enough to survive. There have been no more tillers since, which means that crops are very even, a big advantage when it comes to harvest. Winter barley is in full ear whilst wheat is now coming into ear. Both look very well and have the potential to give excellent yields.
One disadvantage of the weather has been that there have been very few days when spraying can take place. Most farmers managed to apply nitrate fertiliser giving the crops the fuel needed for the very rapid growth of recent weeks but spraying fungicides has been much more difficult. The result is that crops have romped through their growth stage and disease is now potentially a problem.
In my previous round-up, I wrote that some modern wheat varieties are susceptible to yellow rust but that it is relatively easy to control with fungicides. That, of course, assumes that it is possible to apply them which, this season, has been problematic. Septoria has built up too, so the disease pressure in winter wheat is quite high. There are also reports of aphids resistant to pyrethroids, more or less the only insecticides after the banning of neonicotinoids. That could bring a threat if we have a hot summer.
There is much less oilseed rape now than there was a few years ago and it has been very late to flower. It may look dense yellow but close examination shows that there are few pods developing. There are a few good crops but the majority will be disappointing yet again. Some farmers have experimented with winter linseed instead but it is not very winter hardy and many crops have been thinned out.
It has been a difficult season to establish spring crops. On the lighter chalk soils, spring barley was sown in good time and now looks reasonably well. But on heavier ground, it was planted into wet cold compacted soils and has struggled. Root systems are poor which does not bode well if we get a dry summer. Some crops are even coming into ear prematurely, presumably due to the same mechanism that led to the profusion of spring flowers. There are some crops of spring wheat which look reasonable but have no disease, not a good sign as if conditions are not good for fungi, they are probably not good for crop growth either. Spring beans have established well but are very late to harvest.
Forage maize was sown a little late into cold seedbeds, hardly ideal for a warm weather crop. It eventually emerged looking yellow and miserable but has cheered up over the past couple of weeks, gaining some green colour. Once fully established, it will grow very rapidly as the soil warms up.
Grass and clover leys for silage have also been catching up. First cut is usually taken around 19th May but growth was at least three weeks behind in early May so cutting was delayed. Growth has been rapid since then and the forage harvesters are now at work. However, although yield may well be good, there are doubts over quality because the vegetation is very lush and has low sugar content. Once again, it a question of timeliness, whether to wait for higher sugar content but then the grass may well be coming into ear. At least there is sufficient moisture in the ground to ensure fast regrowth which promises well for second cut.
After last year’s dismal harvest, grain prices are high with wheat around £200 per tonne. There will be very little carry-over of stocks, if at all, so prices for the autumn are holding up well. That may change if the potential of this year’s crops is realised so it may be a year to sell early. Many farmers are depressed, however, as they can see storm clouds gathering. It seems that the Government is determined to negotiate tariff and quota free trade deals with Australia, New Zealand, Canada and, eventually the United States. Livestock farmers fear they will be driven out of business, victims of those who are determined to promote a vegan diet whilst the grasslands are planted to trees or rewilded.