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Saturated soils bring flooding heartache for growers

Soils were at, or close to saturation, across almost all of the country at the end of last month, which has contributed to recent flooding events in some areas.

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In its monthly Water Situation Report for December, the Environment Agency reported that all of England received above average rainfall totals during December.

 

The situation bears similarities to last year. Flooding and waterlogging have resulted in challenging conditions over the last two seasons.

 

The increasing regularity of flooding at Manor Farm, Kelfield, North Yorkshire is leading farmer Richard Bramley to move to a larger area of spring cropping at the expense of winter cropping. But it is a difficult choice, he says.

 

Of his 200-hectare farm, 76ha, is under water [January 22], 24ha of which is milling wheat and the remainder destined for spring cropping.

 

“It is not as bad as last February – there is not as much flood-water but it is only 10 months since we got rid of the last lot of water. We have shifted more to spring cropping over time and it might be time to ditch winter crops which is such as shame as the land grows such good wheat.”

 

If flooding occurs every four years or less frequently, planting winter wheat can be justified, but if floods occur every year it is not cost effective, he says.

 

Some of Mr Bramley’s land and that of neighbours is designated for flood water storage – in the 1980s a series of river-banks were hydraulically graded to overtop in sequence to protect settlements. “As a rule, we were farming where, on occasions, flooding would be an issue but now the frequency with which this is occurring significantly affects farm businesses.”

 

Because of this designation, Mr Bramley was unable to access the Farm Recovery Fund last year. He is hoping that the Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs), which references natural flood management, will reward farmers for maintaining a better catchment balance.


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North West

 

Another area hit by recent flooding is the North West. Olly Harrison, NFU North West combinable crops chair farms near Tarbock, Merseyside - 720ha of land near tributaries of the Rivers Mersey and Alt.

 

“We have about 20 acres under water – we are lucky because most is going to be spring cropped. If it had been winter wheat it would not have been so clever.

 

“Towards Southport there is a lot of demand on pumps and they are struggling to keep up with the amount of water. The Environment Agency is just not dredging – it says it moves the problem downstream but it needs to start downstream. When there is a flood it kills everything, even the worms in the soil.”

 

Looking ahead, Mr Harrison says it can be surprising how quickly soil conditions can change, with some of his land moving from wet to baked solid over a weekend last spring when dry weather came.

 

Yellow patches

 

As well as flooding, saturated soils are having a negative impact on crops. Chris Eglington who farms near Dereham, Norfolk says when he walked down tramlines, water was coming over his boot tops. “It is all under-drained – there has been a massive amount of rain. Wheat is showing yellow patches – because the water can’t get away it is affecting the roots.

 

“Oilseed rape was drilled early and got its roots down. Yes, it has suffered from the wet but if there is a drought there should be a better chance of getting water into the crop.”

December 2020 rainfall

Rainfall total, England: 131mm (103mm in 2019)

 

150 per cent of the 1981-2010 long term average of 87mm

 

More than double the rainfall total for England in November (62mm)

 

Widespread - highest monthly rainfall totals recorded in south-west England

 

Soil moisture deficit less than 10mm (also in 2019)

 

Source: Environment Agency.

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