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Talking Agronomy with Jo Bell: Putting our soils first

As we look ahead to 2020 with maybe 30% of our planned winter crops in the ground and some of them looking none too clever, it’s time for some clear thinking, and firmly soil-focused thinking that goes well beyond the immediate season at that.

As a general observation early ploughing (and tine drills with smaller tractors) led to growers maybe drilling for longer, but when fields reached capacity these fields now have less structure at depth so will take more time before they can be considered for drilling.

 

Delayed

 

Even the few drills that ventured out on a good, sharp early December frost soon gave-up, so they didn’t do more harm than good on what one of my growers called ‘crème brûlée land’.


Many of us have not faced this situation in our lifetimes. Even 1987 – when I always wished I had a low ground pressure shoe size like my boss – wasn’t as bad; mainly because we weren’t delaying drilling until well into October to deal with black-grass.

 

Having said that, I have no doubt that not drilling bad black-grass ground early was exactly the right thing. Twenty years of Stow Longa research shows time and time again that we take our eye of this particular ball at our peril. It simply isn’t worth sowing wheat in September where we have grass-weed problems.


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Heavier

 

In just the same way, we have to appreciate that on much of our heavier, wetter land it may not be worth trying to establish a winter – or even, dare I say it, a spring crop – this season.

 

It’s very tempting to do everything we can to get something sown. But one step forward in immediate cropping can easily put us three steps back in soil condition if we are not careful. And that can have a major impact on our performance for several seasons to come.


Keeping the balance of drainage and air in the ground remains the key priority for us. While we may need to use metal to help our soils restructure, this must be at the right time.

 

The sheer amount of rain we have had means we won’t be considering deep cultivated land with less structure at depth, in particular, for any working – let alone drilling – for a good while yet.

Established

 

Overall, we are dividing our fields into four main categories for 2020 management, and we will be drawing on our vast array of experience and trials results to do this.


Those with satisfactorily-established crops will receive our normal gross margin-maximising agronomy.

 

Where establishment is poorer, we will be employing especially careful macro and micro-nutrition programmes and PGR regimes to encourage rooting and tillering, together with the best possible weed control wherever viable. More than anything else, our emphasis here will be on optimising, not maximising, spend.


Much more problematic are our other two categories of fields. Those that have been drilled but have a big question over crop viability and those where spring drilling is our only real option.

 

In both these cases we will be carefully weighing-up our opportunities on the one hand, and soil conditions on the other during January and February, digging plenty of holes to establish the extent and location of any structural issues and deciding how we can help those soil types that may not restructure themselves.

Options

 

Unlike most other options, spring barley is still available and we know we can drill it into April. But the key question is whether we want to; either if the ground remains in less-than-ideal condition or if there is so much being sown that harvest prices are likely to be on the floor.

 

Instead, we may be better off leaving our heaviest, wettest fields well alone and using the time to re-set them with a fallow.

 

With climate change promising us more weather extremes, bearing a little short-term cropping pain for invaluable long-term soil resilience gain may be the best New Year’s resolution we can make.

 

A happy and hopefully prosperous New Year to you all.

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