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Talking agronomy with Chris Martin: Assessing the impact of poor soil structure

It is certainly looking like a mixed bag for combinable crops across the North East and very much a year of extremes, showing the differences between crops on good land and those on not so good land.

 

It is certainly looking like a mixed bag for combinable crops across the North East and very much a year of extremes, showing the differences between crops on good land and those on not so good land.


Despite the incredibly wet winter and cold spring, cereals crops on good land have really kicked on and if the weather is favourable with plenty of cool sunshine such as we experienced in 2015 between now and harvest, yields could still be very good, particularly with those crops which received robust fungicide programmes.


These have been required to address the high yellow rust and septoria pressure experienced throughout the region, but where good programmes have been applied and timed well, crops remain incredibly green and healthy. Where timing or product choice has been compromised however, susceptible varieties are looking pretty scruffy and there is likely to be a big response to good fungicide programmes this season.


Grass-weeds escaping earlier treatments, particularly in the colder spring are also making things look a bit scruffy, particularly on headlands of some fields, and plans will have to be made to address this in the future. Despite this, the potential on good land across the region is still pretty good.


On poorer land, however, things look different. Crops came out of winter stressed with poor root systems, and the cold and relatively dry spring did not allow early uptake of nitrogen and tiller survival, hence some thin crops. It was alarming on a recent flight over the region to see so many brown patches across fields highlighting waterlogged areas or drainage problems over the winter. Oilseed rape across the region echoes this picture, and while it was one of the shortest flowering periods I can remember, good crops have podded up well. Crops had some really bright days at the end of flowering, which should help maximise seed number and then experienced some significant rain events after flowering which should have washed in late applied nitrogen to help prolong green area duration and hence seed fill.


The roots of crops on poor land have really been compromised and while oilseed rape has phenomenal compensatory powers in the right conditions, I am fearful of some disappointing yields on the poorer land.


If conditions allow after harvest, there will be a big temptation to help restructure soil and for subsoiling many of these problem fields. This should, however, come with a health warning as there is probably more damage done with a subsoiler every year than is ever corrected. It is vital to get a spade out and dig a hole to see where the problems are, making sure you only go as deep as you need to and that the soil is friable at the working depth.


While the natural temptation in problem fields will be to rip them up and go as deep as possible, going deeper than the critical level will only make things worse. Subsoiling without assessing soil structure first was once described to me as like taking a drag from a cigarette, ‘it makes you feel good at the time, but deep down you know you are doing long-term harm’.


Drainage is also key – if there is nowhere for the water to go, it does not really matter how good your soil structure is as it will eventually become waterlogged in a winter like we have just had. Many drainage systems are still operating well beyond their life expectancy, and while re-draining fields is not an attractive proposition with current commodity prices and farm finances, repairing and maintaining field drains should be a priority in problem fields.


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