Well into January, we are still clinging to the hope of getting more crops in – spring sown, if not winter wheat. But every glimmer of opportunity in the form of a few dry days in a row seems to be snuffed out by yet another soaking.
Most of our soils are still far too wet to take much in the way of machinery. And it looks as if many will remain at their plastic limit too long for much-needed remedial work ahead of spring sowing. Which means more acres are likely to be fallowed this season.
One saving grace is an exemption from the three crop rule if 75% or more of the ground cannot be planted. Perhaps the powers that be might be persuaded to give us some extra leeway here to ease such a serious situation?
Special early care and attention will be essential with the wheats we actually bring through the winter. We must do everything we can to help later drillings get well enough rooted and tillered for the ear numbers we need. Earlier sown crops which have sat in waterlogged ground for so long will also need intensive care.
Our starting point is plant counts. In good conditions and without major grassweed problems, we know wheat crops of 45 plants/sq.m can deliver 7.5 tonnes/hectare. Imagery can help pinpoint areas for plant counts, allowing these to be quantified for future management.
Our agronomic attention will be focused on crops which close inspection aided by Contour satellite imagery from Rhiza show have reasonably well-distributed populations of 100-150 plants/sq.m or more.
These should reward careful management concentrated on the – mainly nutritional – essentials we know can deliver value for money. We know variable conditions in seedbeds benefit from variable rate seed drilling.
This is even more apparent in spring crops. Variable rate seed drilling is where you will see your fastest return on precision farming.
Early nitrogen is vital here. We are looking to put much more of our planned N on in the first split as soon as conditions allow – 100kg/ha in some situations.
My Agrii colleagues’ research shows thin stands are particularly responsive to extra early nutrition. At the same time, N-Min tests are confirming generally low soil nutrient levels, courtesy of high offtakes by last season’s large crops and the sheer amount of rainfall we’ve had since October.
Low pH could also be something I will consider in these conditions, along with constant reference to soil and water regulations and best practice. The past Soil Protection Review booklet could be a good aide-memoire.
Wherever possible, our early nitrogen will be in the form of more readily available ammonium nitrate rather than urea. It will also be accompanied by sufficient sulphur to ensure the best possible utilisation.
With phosphate so important for rooting and its availability set to be even lower than usual in this season’s waterlogged soils, we want to provide extra early phosphate in a protected form too. Adding P-Reserve to TSP has, for instance, increased yields by 0.5-0.75t/ha in Agrii trials, even where the phosphate index is greater than 2.
Another thing we will be prioritising with our viable wheats to optimise root development and tiller retention is early growth manipulation.
Specialist products such as Quark, low temperature active growth regulators such as Adjust and – interestingly – extra zinc have all shown themselves to be worth the investment here. Providing, that is, they are applied before the end of tillering.
As the lower leaves make so much more of a contribution to yield in thinner wheats, protecting them adequately early on is also very much on our to-do list, especially with the levels of mildew already evident, and the general rust weaknesses of many current varieties, fusarium and eyespot not to be forgotten.
Special attention will also be going into any barley we manage to sow this spring – the watchword being patience, more than anything else. Indeed, the latest Stow Longa work shows sowing only when conditions are right on heavy ground can be worth a good 2t/ha in yield.
Still receiving their propyzamide and carbetamide along with phoma and light leaf spot protection, many of our surviving OSR crops have been suffering badly from pigeons and slugs. Again here, plant counts will be crucial to our spring management decisions, and specialist nutrition a priority.