As field conditions begin to improve, farmers will be considering their options for restoring soil health and boosting forage stocks.
According to forage specialists, adopting the right strategy over the coming months is an opportunity to put the recent deluge in the past and build a platform for greater productivity in the future.
Helen Mathieu, from Germinal GB, says: “We are seeing a wide range of situations that are beyond the norm and a direct result of the extraordinarily wet conditions that many have endured over the last six months or more.
“It is important to start by assessing what you are dealing with and then putting the right plans in place.
“In the case of bare soils that have been waterlogged, which will include fields earmarked for autumn or spring cereals that have not been drilled, or maize ground harvested too late for a following crop, the first step is to assess soil health and decide what is required to put land back into good order.
“Take a good walk across fields and assess the situation, digging holes where necessary to establish where any compaction layers might be.
“It may be that simply working the surface is enough to create a good enough seedbed, or ground may need sub-soiling to the appropriate depth, or even ploughing, to rectify the problem. Soil testing should also be carried out to
ensure nutrient levels and pH are as they should be for the best possible establishment and future crop performance.”
Ms Mathieu acknowledges there will be varying scenarios facing farmers, including undrilled land, grassland swards requiring renovation, and swards that are now beyond their productive life.
In most cases, she recommends a minimum tillage solution, avoiding any significant soil disturbance.
“Unless fields are badly rutted or poached beyond easy repair, the best approach when establishing grass or forage crops is going to be to broadcast the seed and follow with a pass with a set of ring rollers,” she says.
This should, in most cases, create enough tilth to allow good seed-to-soil contact and lead to good germination and establishment.
“The other important considerations are to ensure soil temperatures are adequate for the species being sown and there is sufficient soil moisture,” she adds.
“Italian ryegrass and westerwolds require 3-5degC, perennial ryegrass likes it a little warmer at around 5-7degC, but if you are including clovers, for example, soils should be at least 7degC and higher.”
Fields that have been left undrilled over winter may need structural restoration. In these cases, Ms Mathieu says once the appropriate cultivations have been carried out the best solution is going to be to grow a crop that is fast growing and has vigorous root activity.
“Sowing a mixture with Italian ryegrass and westerwolds will give quick establishment and produce a significant amount of dry matter within about 12 weeks.
Conditions for establishing new grass swards last autumn were less than ideal and some may require attention this spring in order to maximise their potential.
“We ideally want to see a good even coverage of perennial ryegrass, with around 85 per cent ground cover or greater,” says Ms Mathieu.
“I am seeing swards with 70 per cent or less ground cover as I walk fields this spring and, in many cases, I am recommending that farmers over-seed using the same mixture at one-third or one-half of the original seed rate, depending on how open the sward is.
“Where weeds such as chickweed are present, spray to control these in advance and, after the appropriate time interval, broadcast and either roll with a ring roller or flat roll to ensure good soil-to-seed contact.”
Older swards that have been poached this spring may also benefit from renovation, but can be dealt with more aggressively as the ryegrass plants are more mature and the sub-soil should be firmer.
Ms Mathieu says: “If ground cover of perennial ryegrass is less than 85 per cent in a grazing ley (or less than 75 per cent in a shorter term cutting ley), over-seeding at around 10kg/acre is likely to be a cost effective option. Graze the swards down tight before over-seeding, using the same method of broadcasting and rolling.
“Managed correctly, these rejuvenated swards will have a significant uplift in performance and should remain productive for another one or two years.”
For some leys, the rigours of this spring will have been the final straw and the only realistic solution is to start again.
Going back into grass with a spring reseed is an option, but to maximise forage production and give the next grassland sward the best possible start, Ms Mathieu recommends a break crop in most cases.
“One of the advantages of sowing a short term fodder crop is that it will deliver significant high quality dry matter this summer, and that might be important to fill a forage gap,” she says.
“A brassica will also provide an effective break in the cycle of key pests, such as frit fly and leather jackets, which can be a problem in grassland reseeding.
“With the withdrawal of many of the agrochemicals once used to control these pests, break cropping is increasingly important.”
Again, the fodder crops can be established relatively cost effectively, with the old ley being sprayed off and the brassica seed broadcast and rolled in.