Well what a winter it’s been – or not – depending on your point of view. I’m sat here writing this with a cherry tree in full blossom in the garden which is around four to five weeks earlier than last year.
Daffodils are flowering weeks ahead of normal that there might not be any left to pick for Easter and Mother’s Day – the traditional times for peak demand.
Potatoes in ambient storage have had a hard time – as growers and store managers know too well. It has been one of the mildest winters on record. Is this the shape of things to come?
Certainly the scientific community would suggest so, and we seem to get these ’one in 100-year’ weather events every few years now, so where does that leave us in terms of trying think ahead for the coming potato season?
Normally we hope the winter weather will help us in many ways. However, winter frost-mould on ploughed land might become a thing of the past looking at the very wet fields I see driving around.
It seems almost unthinkable that, having been ploughed as soon as the land had been dry enough to get on, we then have had no frosts to condition the soil.
So coming into spring these fields could be very difficult to manage, and several passes with tillage equipment may be needed to get them into some sort of state to get potatoes planted effectively.
The potential for compaction at different depths and cloddy seedbeds is very high.
Compaction, as has been seen in all the recent work done by NIAB/CUF/Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, is one of the biggest limiters of yield, so hitting the high 50 tonne/hectare yields and beyond may be more challenging – all cultivations will therefore need careful managing.
The likely cloddy seedbeds produced could then have consequences in terms of poorer weed control, where the residuals will be less effective, slug control will need to be enhanced as the slugs will have more room to roam, and the amount of common scab could be much higher than normal. This doesn’t add up to a great starting point.
Also talking to one my colleagues at our recent conference, where global warming and its consequences for agriculture was one of the topics we discussed, they saw blight on potato volunteers at Christmas.
The really big blight epidemics in recent years – 2007, 2012 and 2014 – have all come early in the season, when the crops are most vulnerable – an omen perhaps?
We know young, new potato growth is particularly susceptible to blight infection and the rapid canopy growth, where canopies can double every five days, makes chemical coverage particularly challenging.
This makes for the alarm bells to ring when aligned with the work reported by the James Hutton Institute, at Harrogate, where they showed that:
We’ve suspected this for some time, but it’s nice to have it confirmed by scientists. This means we will have to be very watchful in the first few weeks after crops emerge this coming spring.
Product choice, timing and frequency of applications will be key to keeping out blight if the weather is conducive to infection early on and there is active blight on dumps and volunteers.
Products with combined kickback and contact activity or tank mixes at short intervals may be the order of the day. But I would much rather hope for a kind spring to offset some of these potential issues.