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Talking arable with Neil MacLeod: Early finish to harvest

The Southesk 2018 harvest came to an end on September 14th, 10 days earlier than normal having delivered unexpected highs and, unfortunately, predicted lows in terms of drought related crop performance.

 

The winners were oilseed rape, winter barley and, surprisingly, spring barley, with winter and spring oats doing very poorly and winter wheat varying from 2.5t/ha under budget on our light land to 1t/ha over budget on the heavy land.

 

Both high and low nitrogen spring barleys achieved malting, which secures a valuable premium over feed and guarantees this crop second place behind oilseed rape in terms of gross margin performance. All in all, I don’t suppose we can complain too much. We knew our light land performance would be poor, but thankfully our heavier ground has done enough to deliver 600 tonnes of crop over what was estimated.

 

All cereal straw was sold in the bout this harvest with the accountant in one ear beating the agronomist in the other. However, joking aside, with replacement potash already secured at early season discount, the straw income will be a welcome boost to the compromised grain yields.

 

Our machinery hire costs for this harvest were higher due to running the hired combine over three times the acreage we normally would. However, this will be offset with a 25,000-litre reduction in grain dryer fuel usage due to the unseasonably dry harvest we had here in the North where the bulk of the cereals were harvested at about half the normal moisture content.

 

As I write this article (September 22), our 130ha of direct drilled oilseed rape has been in the ground 3-4 weeks, with 145ha of barley and 80ha of wheat also sown and two drills currently establishing wheat after rape using both direct and minimal pass techniques.

 

This approach allows the ploughs to focus on preparing 130ha for oats, giving us establishment options if the weather turns wet. We are also taking the opportunity to subsoil as much land as we can, a job that often gets overlooked up here when the weather turns. Seedbeds are fantastic albeit a tad dry, and although there isn’t significant slug damage to either sown rape or volunteers, we are applying 3-5kg Derrex (ferric phosphate) with the pre-emergence spray as you don’t have to dig too far before finding slug eggs just waiting for a bit of moisture.


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Slug control

 

We have moved away from metaldehyde based slug control, as being a low-lying coastal farm with numerous watercourses, the 10m buffer zone required is impractical and while it’s a cheaper product, I’m fairly sure metaldehyde will be lost from our armoury before too long anyway.

 

We have some rape with flea beetle damage which, although not overly concerning yet, will be closely monitored in the hope that cooler temperatures will solve the issue. September is a hugely important month for crop establishment in the North and the key is maintaining the momentum that we set during harvest in the hope that before long our seed drills will be hard up behind the potato harvest.

 

With the nights drawing in, however, it’s always a challenge for a manager to maintain the momentum set during harvest and in turn staff motivation becomes even more important. Striking the balance between allowing deserved time off for a very loyal staff base and the financial implications and potential risks of delaying crop establishment is always tricky, hence why we aim to achieve as much in September as possible.

 

The Agriculture Bill has been published and regardless of my political stance and views on Brexit and subsidised support, at least we now have a plan in place and time to start restructuring our businesses accordingly. I have no doubt that ploughing our own furrow or paddling our own canoe post-Brexit will be an unenviable challenge, but quite frankly we just have to get on with it.

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