Seedbed preparation and managing wet, fragile soil are going to be our biggest challenges this spring.
The weather throughout the autumn and winter has continued with its wet and stormy pattern, bringing large amounts of rain across the UK with some areas experiencing two to three times the average. With the soils saturated at the surface and no way for the water to percolate through, the only option is run-off and localised flooding.
Even in the normally drier part of the world where we are in Norfolk it has been the same, and it becomes interesting when the Waveney Valley floods and the geese, swans and other waterfowl become even closer than normal. And we have our own Nile Valley effect with a large amount of fertility added to the garden when the water recedes.
While skiing this year, I talked to some local farmers in the Otztal Valley about how they are faring from their diversification project of ski resorts. Pretty well it seems; every pylon is worth €7,000 (£5,917) a year due to lack of summer grazing and the invention of artificial snow lengthening the season. Preventing access to grazing land is also worth another few thousand euros per hectare each season and this quickly adds up. Sadly, not many of us in the UK have this option of an alternative income.
Autumn and winter have been challenging for all growers and seedbed preparation and managing wet, fragile soil are going to be our biggest challenges this coming spring. The UK is currently enjoying a bit of dry weather but the soils are still saturated and need to dry significantly to enable early access to the land, especially on the heavier soils.
Sugar beet seedbeds on the heavier bodied land, with the lack of winter ploughing or where it has been ploughed, a lack of significant frosts to break it open, will mean patience will be a virtue in allowing the soil to be ready to take machinery.
We have seen from the British Beet Research Organisation Beet Yield Challenge that plant population and establishment is one of the critical elements to achieving good yields. Lack of compaction and strong tap roots are another key element, so these early season decisions are going to be some of the most important we make. In many fields the less we do with metal and power the better, allowing the soil to dry and come right naturally, rather than beating it into submission.
In potatoes it will be the same scenario, as during stone and clod separation operations, compaction can be caused at working depths and have a huge effect on rooting and hence, yields. This can also impact the number of green tubers. If the tubers cannot grow down due to soil being smeared and compacted, then they only have the option to grow up or out therefore increasing the number of greens.
Some growers will get in early, put in their AB lines and with the aid of RTK and GPS, do some subsoiling between the beds and help the water drain away more effectively. This can be effective but needs careful planning to avoid compaction and damage where the beds will be formed.
We've seen in many fields that increasing the soil organic matter and the microbiome has a large beneficial effect on the drainage and workability of the soil. Where growers have been following this practice over a number of years they are now reaping the benefits and their soils should be more resilient and workable this spring.
The recent Agriculture Bill 2020 is looking to change the focus of how rural payments are made with an increasing focus on environmentally beneficial measures undertaken by farmers. There will be a particular focus on soil health and clean air and water. This means there will be a double benefit in managing our soils more sensitively both in terms of more productive soils, but also some form of rural payment. So, although not quite so attractive as they're getting in the Otztal Valley, it too quickly adds up.