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In this podcast, Mike Abram, our PR and social media manager, catches up with Andrew Williamson, one of our Black-Grass Task Force (BGTF) farmers. For Andrew a ‘perfect storm’ of almost continuous rain and slug pressure during the winter has meant that while 80% of his winter wheat has been drilled none of it is likely to be harvested. Andrew and Mike discuss how this will impact the spring cropping area and weed control. In addition, also updates Mike on the status of a cover crop drilled to help better establish the following spring oats crop. 

 

Drilling

I am Mike Abram, I’m PR and social media manager from Bayer. Today I’m with Andrew Williamson who is a farmer in Shropshire, and he hosts our Black-Grass Task Force in action trial. 

Andrew thanks for allowing us to come and talk to you today, what I wanted to just start with is to see how you’ve got on with drilling because obviously this Autumn has been such a nightmare for many farmers, how have you coped? 

We’ve had a fairly torrid time in regard to drilling and we’ve managed to establish our oilseed rape in reasonable conditions. Then we waited and waited for a while for various reasons to control grass weeds and also because through the lack of losing deter (so BYDV control). 

We purposely delayed when we wanted drilling and we ended up drilling probably a month later than we’d ideally have like to. When we finally had opportunity in some dryer weather, we managed to establish probably about 80% of our wheat area in two or three days, in a window of around the 18th October, and kept having hope that would come through when it’s in reachable conditions as the winter progress.  The fact that we go more and more rain continually we’ve now come to the point where we don’t think we’re going to harvest any of that wheat.  

Wow, so that’s a little bit different to what a lot of other famers have experienced this autumn, where actually they’ve not been able to drill but you’ve managed to get your wheat in, but it hasn’t come through, why was that?  

Probably a few different factors, one thing we’re on the road with trying to convert to is conservation agriculture and we’re doing more direct drilling. We’re in the second year this year, last year went fantastically well but it was a dry season last year and this year’s completely different. 

We were able to travel on land because it just wasn’t touched, it wasn’t as if we had worked a seed bed up and then it had got wet.  So that helped us to get across the land to drill and also, we left quite a good ratio on the surface which also helped to carry the machinery. 

But then the downside of that is when we had continual rainfall the water just wasn’t getting away and the drainage wasn’t working and we just sat in a sort of anaerobic situation the top couple of inches and even though it chitted and started to grow it just kept imbibing more and more water and basically drowned.  

Pest control

And did you have problems with pests as well? 

Yeah even on top of that we’ve also had a massive pressure from slugs across all crops from oilseed rape to oats to wheat.  Some of that was I wouldn’t say self-inflicted, but we had quite big pressures from slugs. 

A lot of our wheat was following oilseed rape and we purposely left the previous years oilseed rape volunteers, in an attempt to try and attract away flee beetle from the oilseed rape we established this year. Therefore, we end up with canopies of rape which are absolutely stuffed full of slugs and then you try and drill some wheat into those afterwards and the pressure from the slugs was like nothing I’d ever seen. 

We’ve probably put three to four applications of ferric phosphate onto the weeds and if it did manage to get out of the ground and escape the water then it did just get eaten by a slug, so we’ve had huge pressure. 

So, what does that mean for your cropping area, will you redrill that? What with?  

Currently as we said the other day on another wet miserable day, I don’t think I’m going to plant much but if it comes out sunny tomorrow, I might be a bit more optimistic. 

Our aim is to try and redrill some of that wheat area with wheat. But we will not attempt to drill anymore wheat into the ground that’s following oilseed rape. We’ll try and redrill maybe some other fields which are destined to go to spring crop, because we’re later now so we’ll gain from our grass weed control strategy and also, we’ll follow into the beans as well. 

And I’m quite comfortable to certain varieties we can drill up until the end of February possibly into March. So, there is time yet and this time of year things can change quite quickly so I keep hoping that we’ll be able to get some wheat in the ground. 

Black-grass trial field 

Fingers crossed. If we just turn to the field where we’ve got the black-grass trial, when we talked back in the summer the plan was that it would have a cover crop planted on most of it and then be a corner which you’d take out of production and put into lucerne. 

How have you managed with that? Did the cover crop get in? Is the lucerne planted? What have you actually managed to achieve given its been such an incredibly difficult autumn? 

Well there’s a common thread here, we managed to plant it all. Like we’d planted the weed, the cover crop we didn’t plant until the 29th of August so quite late. 

It is critical the time when you plant cover crops in our part of the world, in the western side of the country, in Shropshire. Because day length reduces and you don’t get the same cover crop that you plant in September, as you do the middle of August. Particularly this season it was quite cold and quite slow, so we planted the cover crop with a mix of phacelia, buckwheat and veg and we mixed in with that some spring beans, essentially the spring beans came in but nothing else has.  

And there’s a decent, there’s a scattering of them, it’s not massive, it’s not a huge biomass crop but its beans well there growing, there nodulating, fixing a bit of nitrogen and we might get some benefit going forward.  

We did also manage to drill the lucrene in the one corner, but again that was planted in unideal conditions. Probably later than it should have done and that was purely driven by development in the land free because the harvest was late.  The harvest was pressured because of the weather and everything else and you have to sort of prioritise things, and you can’t go off leaving the combine to go and plant a corner of lucerne, but I think we’ll have to redrill in the spring. 

Re-drilling lucrene 

That’s okay to redrill in the spring? I don’t know much about lucrene I have to say. 

Well that makes two of us, but we’ll give it a go but yeah, I think so. I don’t see why it shouldn’t be it’s a grass so I don’t see why it shouldn’t be a problem to be able to grow this plant in the spring. 

And the cover crop, what’s the plans for that? There’s not a great big population of cover there as you say so when will you look to destroy it, or will you drill direct into it with the spring oats that’s going to follow? 

I think because of the sparsity of the population, we’ll be able to drill straight into it because there’s not a thick enough canopy there to prevent the surface of the soil drying off and getting light in winter because its thin.  

I think we’ll leave the beans for as long as possible and then either drill it, spray it off soon before we drill it or even afterwards when we’ve been through and when we go through it with a pre-em on there. 

Cover crop benefits 

What do you think the benefit of that cover crop has been? Has is done what you think it should have done? 

Well no it hasn’t done what I’d hoped to do, because it hasn’t established in the way I’d hoped to do because we would have expected the buckwheat and the phacelia and the veg have got established. 

Buckwheat in particular is very quick to establish in the autumn, its known as a good phosphate scavenger, so we would have scavenged some phosphate on there. The phacelia has got a very fine root structure in the horizon in the first levels of soil so that would have been, and we’re not getting that benefit, the beans have done what they need to do and so it’s a bit of disappointment but not a total disaster. 

And given that do you think it would have helped in terms of the aim of helping you establish the spring oat crop a bit more easily or anything along those lines or is it probably not going to have made enough of a difference? 

It may have made a bit of a difference, but I don’t think I can have made a huge difference because I don’t think the canopies there. So, if you think about the benefits of having a large canopy to traffic over and rather than if getting in direct contact with the soil you haven’t got enough there for that.  

But I guess the other benefit from not having a thick canopy is there’s been no suppression of any black-grass growing there, so any of the black-grass will have degeminated. That’s a benefit because ultimately, we don’t want to be planting a cover crop which is going to be detrimental to growth of the black-grass period. 

We can take it out with glyphosate because the whole reason why it’s going for a spring crop and its growing on is because its truing to control grass weeds. So, any cover crop is then detrimental to that aim is not what we want to be. And we have to remember why that ground is available to grow a cover crop over and the main reason is because of trying to control grass weeds.  

Establishing winter wheat 

And just coming back to your problems with establishing winter wheat and obviously that’s going to mean that you’re going to have much more effectively spring crop in the ground, is that a silver lining then for you in terms of your grass weed control? 

Yes, that is a positive of having so much spring crop going in, because we know that probably the best way or the best way to control our grass weed is through spring cropping. 

We would normally do it in 25% and 35% and this year we’re going to be looking at probably about 70% even more maybe, dependent on if we can’t get any more wheat in. That is going to have a benefit on our grass weed populations and hope that will help us going forward in the next few years. 

We’ve also got to be very careful; I want to be careful to keep the effect of autumn 2019 to cropping year 2020.  I don’t it to ripple through for the next three of four years, and I think we may have to take the first loss and just except that rather than compromising things for three of four years in the future. 

 

So, when you establish spring barley, spring wheat or whatever it is this spring, what kinds of things will you be doing for weed control? 

 

For weed control obviously we’ll be keeping seed rates up, to make sure we’ve got competition from the crop with the weeds as well and we’ll be using some pre emergence herbicides to keep on top of it.