Talking Policy with Mike Hambly: End of harvest

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As we approach the end of August harvest is almost complete. All the crops have been cut and it only remains to bale the last of the straw to finish the job.


True to form that is proving difficult, the ubiquitous ‘Cornish sunshine’ is not helping; I just tell people we are experimenting with a new form of management where we like to wash the straw before baling to limit dust. Is there any job less profitable on a farm than turning wet straw?


Harvest this year has been a disappointment, particularly after last year’s success. Expectations last autumn were high, good drilling conditions allowed excellent establishment and I remember saying at the end of October the farm had never looked better. What a mistake. From the first week of November until the end of January we endured constant rain. The persistently wet and mild winter was the undoing of our expectations.


Winter barley yields fell well short of our five-year average and like other local growers we lost yield through attacks of barley yellow dwaft virus (BYDV). First applications of aphicide were made in good time, but the all-important follow-up sprays were not made in November and December as ground conditions made it impossible to travel. Worst-affected was the ground we rent on a Farm Business Tenancy, only three miles from home but, more importantly, 80 metres closer to sea level. In steep fields it was noticeable the level of virus infection was higher at the bottom of the field than at the top; I estimate these infections cost us up to 2.5 tonnes/hectare.


Next to harvest was the winter oilseed rape. My expectations weren’t high, the crop had struggled in the wet all winter, mobbed by pigeons and lacking in vigour and response to the generous nitrogen and sulphur tonics applied. Agronomists who attend the NIABTAG field days we host considered me unduly pessimistic; they forecast compensatory growth a yield of more than 3.5t/ha, one even making a bet with me for a tenner. It was, perhaps, unfair of me to take the bet, he was never going to win, maybe he just felt sorry for me. The final outcome was an abysmal yield which would have disappointed and embarrassed a spring rape grower. Undeterred by this failure I have tonight been calibrating the drill ready to start drilling the 2017 WOSR in the morning; it will need to perform next year if it is to retain a place in the rotation.


The winter oats were combined in good weather and almost hit our five-year average yield, which considering the year was a result. Specific weights were good, colour excellent, hopefully the milling premium will reflect this.


Wheat harvest was completed on August 16, an early finish for us. Yields were 1t/ha down on our five-year average, although that still includes the 2012 disaster. The low sunlight levels and wet weather in late June did not allow the crops opportunity to exploit their full potential and high levels of fusarium ear blight which came in late also took their toll.


So what are the lessons learned? Persistently wet and mild winters appear to have a dramatic impact on yield potential, the need for access to products for pest control, for example BYDV and opportunities for timely application are critical. I also feel we over estimated our soil N reserves and consequently under fertilised crops this year.


Anyway, not to worry, next year will be better. As Del Boy used to say ’this time next year we’ll all be millionaires’.


Arable Farming
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