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Talking arable with Hannah Darby: The key to success might be to plant oats as an intercrop

Sitting here on October 16, we are all wondering if the autumn 2019 is repeating itself. Hopefully, by the time you are reading this you have managed to drill as much as you hope to this autumn.

Our rotation is diverse and constantly changing. We grow winter and spring wheat – usually behind the last lift of sugar beet – spring oats, peas, spring beans and sugar beet. Until this year, we have grown spring barley but the difficulty growing winter wheat after it without creating ‘warley’ has caused it to be dropped.

 

Historically we have grown milling wheat and this year we will be planting the Skyfall seed that was intended to be grown last year alongside LG Skyscraper, which has worked well for us over the last two years. As the rotation has worked this year, we are looking to plant more winter wheat than we have since I have been on the farm. Let’s just hope we can get some in the ground before March.

 

Black-grass is a constant threat and, although we are keeping it in check in most fields, I would not be rushing to get the drill out until October 15 normally. With direct drilling and shortening days it can be a little nerve wracking, but that’s farming.

 

Finding suitable break crops is always a challenge. We stopped growing oilseed rape in 2013 due to increasing black-grass, slug pressure and unrelenting pigeon damage, finding something to replace it especially on our clay soils has been a challenge. Generally, we have leaned towards oats and barley with intermittent beans, but they all have their challenges.

 

On the Fen, root crops can help but I still like to have a legume in the mix for their benefit to soil health and reducing the reliance on white strawed crops.

 

When I returned to the farm in 2014, I decided to write my dissertation on combining peas and my fascination with growing them began. It was madness for us to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result.

 

We tried to grow vining peas for seed but finally gave up when Reglone (diquat) was banned, although I didn’t want to give up on growing peas. It has been on my mind that the key to success on our soil type might be to plant the oats as an intercrop.

 

If we could make a trellis to stop the peas going flat, harvest would be more like combining than a week or more of using the combine harvester as a cultivator. I hoped that the peas would provide the oats with nutrition and help suppress weeds which peas don’t compete with. We choose oats as they grow well on our fen soils, don’t host take-all and are low input.

 

After hearing Andrew Howard, who wrote his Nuffield Scholarship on the merits of companion cropping and intercropping, speak at an event at the start of the year I decided to plant two 24-metre tramlines in our pea field with oats.

 

After seeing work by PGRO, I planted 70 plant/sq.m of oats and peas which established well after drilling on April 8 and was harvested after desiccation with glyphosate on August 12.

 

Towards the end of the season, the intercropped tramline appeared to have less weed pressure, especially from cleavers. The mixture was combined and for the purpose of the trial separated.

 

Our average pea only yield was 3.04 tonnes/hectare. Peas in the intercrop yielded 2.9/ha and 1.5t/ha of oats, a 43% increase in grain yield from the same area. Financially the intercrop produced another £137.84/ha output but the cost of the dressing a small batch this year is likely to outweigh the financial benefit.

 

So, the question is what next? I will spend this winter considering the merits of separation and production of intercrops for animal feed. I would love to hear anyone’s experiences.


Read More

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Talking agronomy with Ben Bootman: It is a much better start to the drilling programme compared to last yearTalking agronomy with Ben Bootman: It is a much better start to the drilling programme compared to last year
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Talking policy with Matt Culley: Uncertainty is causing end users to import grains from outside the UKTalking policy with Matt Culley: Uncertainty is causing end users to import grains from outside the UK

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