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Talking arable with Ian Matts: Reflecting on crop establishment

Writing this at the beginning of December, we are now getting caught up for winter, which is probably the first time in the last three years. This is mainly thanks to the kind October and November we experienced this year, which seemed very unexpected as we neared the end of September.


Abby   Kellett

Abby   Kellett

Crops generally look very good as a result, although not all crops are through. Some of the latest drilled wheat only went in at the end of November, and although it has chit, it will be a while until we see any green shoots. Thankfully, despite following oilseed rape, the slug pressure here is currently low.

 

The only outstanding spraying jobs are to spray-off the cover crops and spring barley volunteers ahead of spring drilling next year. We have experimented with cover crops over the last three or four years, and although this year we did not manage to establish as many as I would have liked, I do believe they have a part to play in our rotation. Although their use is primarily for moisture removal over winter, to improve the chances of successfully establishing spring barley on heavy land, there is so much more to their potential which I hope to utilise going forward.

 

The first is their role in nutrient cycling; picking up nitrogen and other nutrients over winter and releasing them back in a crop available form ahead of drilling the following crop. Phosphate in particular is a nutrient which I would like to utilise better, and with species like buckwheat being a very good phosphate scavenger and able to mineralise phosphate forms otherwise inaccessible to plants through their root exudates, I believe there is a lot more still to learn.

 

Not specifically related to cover crops, but relevant to their use, I was surprised at some of the variation in oilseed rape establishment this autumn. Of particular note were the areas sprayed out early in last year’s barley crops to control black-grass, that remained fallow all season. Irrespective of the method of establishment, these areas to a line, were dramatically poorer in their establishment this autumn. I had previously had it explained to me very simply, that all crops convert sunlight into sugars to feed their growth, which in a simplistic format is clearly understood, however they produce more sugars than they are able to utilise and the excesses are excreted out of the roots. These go to feed the microbial soil life, which in turn is beneficial to the growing crop. When a soil remains fallow, that synergistic relationship does not exist, and the microbial life in the soil will reduce, or become dormant. I may have simplified things too much, but this seems to make sense to me, and may go to explain some of the reasoning behind the variation in establishment in these areas. Following this across to spring drilling, it makes sense to me that cover crops have an additional role to play ahead of spring cropping.

 

I am currently trying to get my head around the confusing world of agricultural technology and, more specifically, compatibility issues. We are looking at moving to RTK in the new year, as well as upgrading our fertiliser spreader. It seems to me there are many, very technologically advanced pieces of equipment available to achieve everything we want, but they are either not available all in one system, or the simplest options are not possible as they cannot talk to each other. I know I am not the only one to experience this, but it seems to be becoming much more apparent the further down this road we get.

 

While I am on the subject of technology, I am not sure which wise guy came up with the concept of unlock codes, as it it clearly just another excuse to charge a few extra thousand pounds once you have already invested a significant enough sum of money just to access additional functions on a controller you already own.

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