Calling a halt to Skyfall drilling in mid-March, we have between zero and 30% of our planned wheat acreage in the ground.
Altogether we have labelled about 70% of our undrilled fields green or amber in the traffic light system we are using to reflect soil condition.
These are our first priority for working. And, with a much-needed dry period promised for the end of the month, we should have been able to make a determined start on drilling them by the time you read this.
Beans and wheat are our first priorities, as these need to be in by early April. On the other hand, we know our Explorer barley, spring oats, peas and sugar beet can do well from later sowing.
In all cases we need enough patience to give them the best possible seedbeds with the right amount of top-down working, making sure we don’t bring-up clods and preserving what could easily become critical soil moisture if drought follows deluge.
For sugar beet, virus yellows is, naturally, at the forefront of our minds. With late-lifted beet and debris around, we’ve been focusing on destroying any foliage which could harbour aphids on cleaner/loader sites or dumps.
As soon as conditions permit, we will be applying P, K, Mg and Na, then setting-up seedbeds to support rapid establishment and take rain. Looking for soil temperatures of 3degC and above – preferably 5degC – we will be planting varieties less likely to bolt first.
About 40kg per hectare N will go in immediately after drilling, the rest at emergence and our tried and tested Agrii foliar nutrition programme should get the crops to 12 leaves where they have some adult resistance to yellows infection as quickly as possible.
And so, to our red-coded fields. Wet and anaerobic, they have been barely fit to walk on until recently. Many have slumped badly or layers of silt have built-up in the profile, impeding drainage. Land coming out of roots is, not surprisingly, a particular challenge.
We have written-off most of this ground for harvest 2020. Instead, we are planning how to bring it back into production next season in the best possible state. This will involve a combination of summer cover cropping and the most-timely remedial working at depth.
Armed with Stow Longa intelligence on different cover species and mixes, we are carefully selecting them on the basis of what needs to be done for each of the fields in question and the crops we plan to drill in autumn.
We are also using Agrii’s environmental consultancy support and work with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) to put these fields to good use in our post-Brexit planning, so we can make the best of the new Environmental Land Management scheme as it develops.
To secure the rewards we are promised for providing public goods such as healthy soils and thriving wildlife, we have to know what environmental mixes work best on our ground and in our systems.
The red fields offer us the perfect opportunity to do some solid fact-finding, making a long-term virtue out of the immediate necessity.
Going forward, we are continuing to give the crops we have in the ground as much care as we can, balancing inputs carefully to their potential, so we only spend where we can see a decent return.
Alongside targeted disease control, we are concentrating on getting our nutrition spot on. This involves extensive tissue testing using the most accurate performance level and growth stage benchmarking system pioneered by Agrii researchers with Lancrop Laboratories.
Although we continue to lose active ingredients, the new wheat fungicides coming through from this spring offer us a useful step forward in septoria management. We are still wary of their rust capability, however. We are also having to get used to the twin pack formats which do, at least, give us some flexibility.
Our remaining oilseed rape crops are quite forward, in good green bud shape and gratifyingly free of flea beetle larvae as they move rapidly towards flowering. As there have only been a few pollen beetles around they haven’t needed an insecticide.
Interestingly, our buckwheat companion cropping trials haven’t revealed noticeable differences in larval levels this spring. But this may be because they were direct drilled into 10in cereal stubbles.
With so much of next season’s OSR due to go in without this stubble advantage after spring barley, having a decent companion crop could well be very much more valuable. So, we will continue our studies here.