David Stead looks at the prospect of a challenging year, with comparisons drawn to previous years, especially 2012.
Hello from a soggy Yorkshire! The New Year came in very quietly, and just as land was beginning to dry, and hopes turned towards catching up with drilling, overdue spraying and even compound fertilisers, the rain returned. We are nearly back to square one, which we have barely left since early October 2019. I estimate that my clients have drilled around 50% of their crops, but there appears to be massive variation in that figure, even between neighbouring farms.
As the new year settles in, I can't help but think that 2020 could well be one of the most challenging I will have faced as an agronomist, with a lot of comparisons drawn to previous years, especially 2012. However, the optimist in me also looks at the challenge of a serious opportunity to deliver significant value to our farming clients. 2013 wasn't the disaster we all thought it was going to be, but we need the weather gods to be favourable. As one of my senior clients says: "It always averages itself out” – worth remembering in times like these.
The opportunity for me as an agronomist is that I feel, with challenging conditions, I get the opportunity to help my clients with the best advice I can give. If the weather was perfect, agronomy in some senses would be relatively straightforward.
This year we can influence crops to achieve their maximum potential and demonstrate our ability to match that to cost-effective inputs. All areas of crop management advice will be necessary in order to deliver optimum returns, especially in the areas of nutrition, cultivation, and soil health, to repair some of the damage. The key piece of advice I am trying to stick to is to navigate our way through the current situation without having a long-term impact on the rotations. Crop financials will play a major part in that discussion.
On farm, the priority is winter barley, which has not received any herbicide yet – with annual meadow grass, broad-leaved weeds and BYDV being a serious concern in untreated fields. The fields which we would usually treat in a 'one-pass' autumn herbicide and pyrethroid insecticide BYDV spray are now growing significant levels of AMG which is tillering, and realistically we are looking at suppression rather than control at this stage. Broad-leaved weeds will be dispatched with herbicide mixes as soon as temperatures are warm enough to do so.
Thankfully, we have more contact options in what wheat is in the ground to deal with annual meadow grass in a contact treatment. Fields that were drilled, that have more sinister grass weeds, generally received pre or early post emergence flufenacet-based sprays last autumn. I'm hoping that has kept most weeds at manageable levels, although contact follow-ups where they will offer cost-effective activity are likely to be necessary.
What oilseed rape I have remaining post the long autumn of cabbage stem flea beetle pillaging (who knew they could swim?) is facing strong pigeon pressure - it's unsurprising to see that they are very hungry with so little viable or even forward OSR around. Early nitrogen applied to viable but low green area index (GAI) crops and deploying as many pigeon deterrents as possible will be key to getting the crop away. Those crops that couldn't get up and away last spring weren't strong enough to beat the next pest-the pollen beetle – so we must learn from that.
Soil sampling continues at pace between shooting invites and delivering NRoSO meetings. Making good decisions for the potato crop in terms of varieties, nutrition, rotations, and PCN population management as well as required treatments is important to get fixed at this stage.
Following four years at Harper Adams University College, David joined Hutchinsons. He is now Yorkshire area manager for the company and was crowned Food & Farming Industry Awards Agronomist of the Year 2019. The size of farms he advises on varies from 40ha to over 1,000ha.