If you read the farming press, or follow farmers on Twitter, you might assume the 2019/20 season was a disaster all round. And for many, it was. However, our poll conducted in August and early September suggests that slightly more farmers were feeling positive than negative at harvest, with many looking forward to the next season. We talk to Hampshire farm manager Ian Margettes, and Bayer’s commercial technical manager Richard Prankerd, for an overview of the impact the previous season has had, and what to consider this autumn as winter cereal drilling gets underway.
Ian is farm manager of Sir Michael Colman, a 1,214 ha farm business near Basingstoke, Hampshire. They grow a wide range of cereals, including: winter wheat, winter oilseed rape, winter oats, spring barley, spring beans, rotational grassland, of which some is in higher level stewardship schemes, and around 120 ha of essential oil crops outside the rotation.
In autumn 2019 Ian made the decision to drill a little later in the year, allowing him more time to achieve stale seedbeds and get on top of some grassweed problems. The farm does have issues with black-grass in some areas. However, Ian explains that autumn drilling and crop establishment did not go to plan. He says:
“The winter oilseed rape was drilled in early September, which in hindsight was a huge mistake. If I’d had the opportunity, I should have drilled earlier because we suffered dreadfully with cabbage stem flea beetle damage and we lost the whole crop.
“We didn’t start drilling wheat until early October, when it had already started raining persistently. Like others, we struggled to get our winter cereals in and in fact, we only got about 75% of our winter wheat in the ground. It was a snatch and grab situation, drilling when we could. Fortunately, we did get our winter oats in, but I decided to stop drilling winter wheat on the 9th of February.
“Looking back, I should have stopped earlier. We weren’t making good seedbeds and were trying to direct drill wherever we could. A lot of our crops were muddled into the ground. We’re on a chalk loam with clay cap so the chalk land was wet and sticky and the clay cap was impossible. Overall, it was a very difficult autumn season.”
Ian replaced half of the failed oilseed rape crop and the un-drilled areas of winter wheat with additional spring barley. Due to storage capacity, Ian couldn’t increase spring barley cropping any further, so instead sowed a cover crop mix of phacelia, buckwheat and some legumes, to mop up any nitrogen and provide an environment for pollinators.
“We’re sat on an aquifer here, and we work very closely with South East Water. We try to recover as much nitrogen as possible, that hasn’t been used by the crop, by putting it back into green materials. Improving the soil and capturing nitrogen has always been part of the policy here.
“Our spring crops are grown on thin chalk land, so it can be feast or famine. If they get away they can do jolly well and ironically, all our chalk land yielded better than the heavier clay last season. I think it was better at sustaining the moisture going through the drought we had in May and June, and it was obviously more free-draining during the very wet winter months. The heavy land has let us down quite badly this year.
“We didn’t manage to get any autumn weed control on, so we had to struggle through the spring season with only contact herbicides which, to be fair, did a reasonable job. We managed to control the weeds and disease and ended up with a half-decent harvest, all things considered. We are around 20-25% down on our five-year average across all crops, with some doing better or worse than others.
Ian’s experience will have been shared by farmers up and down the country, says Richard Prankerd.
“For most farmers, the wet autumn of 2019 caused significant difficulties at drilling, and when trying to control weeds, particularly black-grass. The result was often poor control of competitive weeds, which when compounded with the dry spring, has resulted in significantly reduced average yields.
“But, farmers should be wary of making knee-jerk reactions to last year, and not make long-term management decisions based on one poor season. Delayed drilling is still one of the best cultural tools for controlling black-grass and rye-grass,” says Richard.
Ian agrees, but has made some changes to his plans.
He says, “Once you’ve been caught out you don’t want to be caught again and while I’m not changing the entire plan I am making tweaks.
“For my sins I have decided to plant more oilseed rape. I was going to walk away from it but it’s a tremendous break crop so I decided to put in 50% of what I would normally. We managed to get that drilled on the 18th of August, which has gone in and established well. At the moment it isn’t showing any signs of flea beetle or slug damage.
“We expect to start drilling the winter cereals in the last week in September. We’ve got quite a large programme of autumn drilling so we’re starting a week earlier than last year. However, we’re not really going to do anything different in terms of ground preparation. We do reduced tillage - not ploughing, but getting the soil to a good tilth - and then we drill with our Horsch pronto DC. I’ve got in mind that we’ll finish drilling by the last week of October.”
Residual herbicides are still the mainstay of Ian’s planned autumn weed control strategy.
“We have quite a stock of residuals which weren’t used last year. We will apply our usual pre-emergence spray, provided we can get on the fields, and contact sprays will follow in the spring,” he says.
When it comes to getting good control of grass-weeds, including black-grass, in winter cereals, Richard has some advice.
He says, “Poor seedbeds make black-grass control more difficult. Where soils were damaged last autumn by the wet conditions, the priority should be to make reparations before drilling this autumn. Target areas which ponded, or were compacted by machinery, to improve drainage and reduce the impact of any heavy rainfall this winter.
“Timing of residuals can significantly improve control of black-grass. Residuals work for longer at lower temperatures, and need sufficient soil moisture. By drilling later and therefore applying pre-emergence sprays later, the temperatures will be that much lower. A few weeks at this time of year can make all the difference.
Ian reflects that no two seasons are the same, and that decisions have to suit the conditions at the time.
“We've had a very wet August, as everybody knows, and people are still struggling to get their crops in. I've still got spring beans to harvest,” says Ian. “But there is plenty of moisture in the soil and that's a different story to last September, which was bone dry.
“We can only hope that the nature does balance itself out and we will have a reasonable late September and October for drilling. But otherwise, my plan is to still plant the same sort of areas of winter wheat and winter oats. And like I said, reduce the area of oilseed rape, but at least that's already in and establishing quite well, but we’ll have to watch this space.”
There is little doubt the exceptionally wet autumn and winter in 2019/20 will be remembered for years to come. After such a difficult season, farmers will be keen have a large area of winter wheat this season, but should they drill early or does it simply increase the risk from black-grass and barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV)?
The AF Group / Bayer joint 5x5 Project to monitor black-grass control is coming to a close later this year. The project has helped the participating farmers find rotations that keep black-grass under control. However, the wet autumn disrupted rotation planning so autumn 2020 is about getting things back on track.
Despite the deluge in autumn 2019, damage to soil is not as serious or widespread as feared, growers reported at a Bayer / Farmers Weekly soil roundtable in late May. Instead, bigger concerns were around rotational planning and cash flow. Here are our 6 key takeaways from the discussion.