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Talking Arable with Sophie Alexander: Assessing weed control strategies

It’s time to think about recruiting the wild oat rogueing team for July/August. Google says ‘sowing wild oats was applied figuratively to young men who frittered away their time in stupid or idle pastimes’.


Abby   Kellett

Abby   Kellett

April was a month of visits. First, I went with Organic Arable to Whites, the oat mill we supply in Northern Ireland. Their resident agronomist and oat expert Raymond Hilman advised us against ever growing oats more than once in five years; I don’t, but it is an inconvenient truth, as oats are one of Hemsworth’s best crops.

 

Raymond’s caution is important in order to avoid the soil-borne, yield-robbing oat mosaic virus which is persistent and difficult to eradicate.

 

The following week I heard Raymond’s words of wisdom being uniquely contradicted when Thornbury and District Agricultural Discussion Group visited Hemsworth.

 

One of its party explained that his grandfather’s method had been to grow only oats in a field for five years; any wild oats would then cross breed and be eradicated. I don’t think I am going to risk it. I will employ the usual student team of roguers instead.

 

Spring drilling was eventually completed on April 24 – 40 days later than usual. Due to adverse conditions and the late season we have only managed to weed and undersow spring crops. The winter wheat and oats were too advanced, being at growth stage 30 by the time there was a window of opportunity. I always question the true long-term benefit of Einbocking emerging weeds. It possibly gives the crop an extra opportunity to get ahead but as with most results, timing is paramount. Now, through force of circumstance, we will be able to observe whether omitting one or two weed passes has a discernible consequence or whether yield and quality remain consistent. Foregoing the nitronising effect of disturbing the soil might actually be more detrimental to the crop than not weeding.

 

To create a vaguely controlled comparison between weeding and not weeding, we split a 24-hectare field of spring barley in two and Einbocked only one half. The immediate contrast was apparent. Post-weeding inspections make me wince as the effect looks so harsh on the crop but, in fact, the crops do recover quickly and convincingly, especially after rain.

 

Two of the five fields going into a three-year herbal ley in autumn have been undersown. One is a field of Westminster barley, the other Elyann oats. Ever since an ‘epic fail’ in 2012, I have been reluctant to rely on undersowing expensive leys. The risk of the small seed not establishing well makes it too inefficient and costly. However, having seen the enviable success achieved on a couple of other farms, I have been tempted to try it once more. The sodden spring has prompted the decision and on the positive side it obviates the need to plough after harvest.

 

The first cut of silage was taken the week of May 14. The yield depends on whether permanent pasture or leys are being silaged but we average five tonnes/ha and about 60% dry matter.

 

Even though we are on chalk and tend to have relatively high PH – between 6.5 and 8.5 – we still test every four to five years. An acidic seam runs through a section of the farm which needs intermittent correction. It has concerned me that the standard application is calcium-based limestone. Being on calcareous soil already, we could acerbate calcium lock-up. Hence, over the last couple of years, we have spread magnesium-based limestone at a rate of 2.5t/ha. This also adds 200kg of magnesium per tonne but predictably any fields low in magnesium are not the same fields which need liming. That would be too simple.


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