Talking Roots with Darryl Shailes: Problems in store?

It has been great watching the Olympics and seeing Team GB perform so well. Of particular interest to me has been the cycling team, with every member of the track team getting at least one medal. In interviews afterwards all the cyclists have been talking, not about their natural talent and years of dedication, but about the backroom support they receive and having the best of everything in terms of coaching, bikes, nutritionists, physios and data analysis.


Sir Dave Brailsford – former British Cycling performance director – called it the aggregation of marginal gains. His belief was if you improved every area related to cycling by just 1%, then those small gains would add up to remarkable improvement. Conversely, Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.


I feel this is where we are in potato growing. There are not many areas where we can make great leaps and bounds forward for delivering big gains in yield or quality – yet finding small improvements in everything we do with the crop will lead to a big improvement overall in the end. However, if we keep doing the same things, year in, year out, then apart from some natural variation in yield and quality due to the weather, how can we expect things to improve?


The exceptional wet weather in June has exposed a lot of soil management issues. I believe managing soil more effectively is an area of crop husbandry nearly everyone can improve on. Compaction and its consequence on root structure have caused significant issues in many crops (not just potatoes) and there are also more soils with pH problems around this year than normal.


We are seeing the consequences of these effects with canopies senescing earlier than normal. Where is the research to help us offset this problem and manage this loss more effectively – apart from some unquantified anecdotal leaf greening observations where we’ve put another bag of N on? In many leafy salad crops where drip irrigation is used, N and K are recognised as being very closely linked and nearly always applied together. Is this something we should consider in potatoes? Maybe some already are?


Where these canopies are senescing unevenly it can lead to big increases in black dot, something no grower of packing potatoes can accept, so even more attention to detail than normal regarding the timing of burn down and lifting will be essential this season.


The more classic storage problems of blight and blackleg could be big problems in store this season. There was a huge amount of blight inoculum around in June and most crops were carrying infection at some level or another and as a consequence there is tuber blight around. This will be mainly where there were gaps in the blight programme and growers just could not get onto fields to treat.


Marking any infected areas now before burn down, or before senescence hides them, and doing some digs checking for tuber blight will be a job well done. Then being careful where they go into the store or indeed leaving any particular bad area in the field could pay huge dividends. Don’t just lift them all together and hope for the best.


And then blackleg; there is a high level of infection in many crops and, with the thin skins of many of the newer varieties, breakdown in store is a distinct possibility. This may seem a pessimistic outlook, but for potatoes going in to ambient temperature stores accompanied by a wet and warm autumn as we saw last season – it couldn’t happen again, could it?


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