The perils of our rush to drill early – Agronomist & Arable Farmer – David Stead

Agronomist of the Year David Stead urges growers to be careful with flourishing black-grass and ryegrass infestations after September rain ...

September has come and gone very quickly with harvest eventually being mopped up. The less said about the cropping season 2019/20 the better.

However, there are some potentially important lessons. I do believe we have to get used to being challenged by extremes of weather. We need to do all we can within our own systems to give ourselves the resilience needed to deal with heavy rain or a lack of it. Variable was the word at harvest, with everything between 2.5t/ha to 12.5t/ha, sometimes within the same field. The climate is only exaggerating the issue under the surface, which is our depleting soil health. Farms and fields with a decent history of organic manures coped to a better extent than those without.

Over-cultivation in autumn 2019 followed by significant winter rainfall left us with capped, tight and rootless crops in a drought which had little chance of fulfilling any potential. Cover crops may not be the complete solution but I am very interested to see how trials develop locally and particularly how they affect the following spring crop. Catch crops do not particularly have time to fit in with us here in North Yorkshire as winter can close in quickly, but I am sure having a cover crop in over winter brings big benefits to the soil and the following spring crop.

Onwards to a new cropping year, and the drills are flying. Not a bad thing in situations with no or little grassweed issue but we do have to be very careful with black-grass and ryegrass infestations which have flushed quickly after a September rain. Safest advice is to leave the worst until last. October drilled untreated wheat produces fewer grassweed heads per square metre than fully treated September sown crop on the same ground.

Although I understand the big push with drilling this year, we could be creating ourselves more trouble in the long term.

I have tried both aclonifen and metribuzin in herbicide mixes this autumn. With aclonifen, it feels as if we are only standing still from expected levels of control from the flurtamone days. I am hopeful that the metribuzin aids control of some tricky broad-leaved weeds, especially mayweeds, groundsel and cranesbill.

And let’s not forget the barley yellows dwarf virus threat – we are using climate forecasting tools to give best advice on treatment timings and then trying to work with actives with the better credentials on beneficial insects.

Relative to previous years, winter OSR seems to have been a less stressful ordeal.

However, I do wonder if the lack of surviving OSR crops has led to a decrease in cabbage stem flea beetle to migrate into crops. We’ve got some big crops up and away, those drilled into moisture post-winter barley are well established and look like they could benefit from a flock of sheep, let alone some PGR when we consider autumn fungicide. There are a few later crops sown after wheat and spring barley which will need a bit of luck to survive the onslaught of the pigeons.

Generally, the beetle has been manageable. One well-timed spray has done the trick so I am hopeful of some good potential crops pre-winter.

Nearly every crop of potatoes has been killed with the exception of a few Pentland Dells. It has taken some doing with the biggest learning being that quality of application, conditions at timing of application and after application make the impact on the performance of carfentrazone-ethyl & pyraflufen-ethyl. Flailing has been tricky in the August rains, although most crops where well into senescence given a relatively early planting season. Should we get into a later year with similar August rainfall we could have a real issue on our hands as taking down leafy crops with our current armoury will be challenging at best!

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