As torrential rains impacts heavily on the industry, John Swire looks at the overall economic effects and how farmers have been forced to change their practices and diversify their crops to salvage their livelihoods.
Apart from all the political shenanigans and the subsequent ramifications that will play out for several more years, 2019 will be remembered for one other thing – the absolute horrendous weather that we have suffered from since the middle of September. The effects on the industry are almost certainly likely to last for quite some time. Farmers and agronomists have had to act on the hoof to get themselves out of the mess in which they have found themselves through no fault of their own. Some farmers have had to make changes to their systems that are likely to remain for some years to come.
According to the Met Office, autumn rainfall records were broken for South Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, with the previous records set in 2000.
England as a whole had its fifth wettest autumn with 348mm of rainfall. South Yorkshire was the wettest county compared with the long-term average (1981-2010), with more than double its average rainfall for the season (425.5mm compared with an average of 208mm).
The general consensus is that plantings appear to be around 80% of the normal amount of winter cereals planted by the middle of December. Although in some areas, such as Yorkshire, for example, these figures are as low as 40%. However, this is not the only problem. Some of the wheat that has been planted has been standing in or, indeed, underneath water for weeks now and the prospects for it to recover are diminishing by the day. Also the concentration on getting the crop sown has led to pre- and post-emergents taking a back seat due to time constraints or the fact that the ground has just been too wet to approach with any sort of equipment.
One industry expert told AAF this week that this autumn's weather could have implications for black-grass control. He pointed out that, for years now, farmers have been encouraged to sow winter cereals as late as possible in order to control black-grass. Farmers, following this advice, are now left with several soggy fields and lots of seed in the barn. If these farmers are unable to plant their crops this winter and have to revert to spring-sown cereals, they may inadvertently have gone some way to controlling their black-grass problem. However, he also pointed out that farmers will be extremely reluctant to delay sowing next autumn, which could quite possibly have a serious effect on the following years' black-grass populations.
Agronomist of the Year David Stead, who covers Yorkshire for Hutchinsons, painted a particularly bleak picture, saying as much as 50% of winter cereals have not been sown and a lot of the crops that have been sown have not germinated or rotted in the soil. He also pointed out that farmers have not been able to get on the fields to spray, thus running the risk of BYDV and annual meadow grass for next year.
“It is unrealistic now to think about sowing in January as the crop will be slow germinating in the short January days and so it would be best left to February," added David.
“We have probably reached the point where we should be considering switching to spring cereals. Although access to any substantial amount of spring wheat may be a problem, so it might be advisable to be looking at spring barley. The problem is that this is going to have a knock-on effect, as it will put rotations out of kilter and we are going to have to be very careful how we advise farmers to go on next year.
“Also, many farmers are going to be extremely cautious about delaying drilling next year, and we need to help them hold their nerve or else black-grass may become a severe problem in the following crops.”
David went on to point out that there are other more serious problems that may be facing farmers this spring: “I think the biggest headache will be on fields following maize or potatoes. A lot of these fields are covered in water-filled ruts and are going to take a lot of work to sort out before any sort of crop is sown. There is a plausible argument that, if finances allow, a cheap cover crop could be used for the next growing season, which would help to sort out the soil structure ready for a new crop to be sown next autumn.”