Choosing appropriate spring crops and getting the agronomy right will be important to mitigate a reduction in winter crop areas for many growers in the 2020 harvest season.
Growers report nearly 50 per cent of winter cereals have not been drilled due to excessively wet ground conditions across the UK, while other sources suggest a 13 per cent fall in UK winter wheat planting and a 12 per cent fall for winter barley.
Regardless of the figure used, it is certain that more spring crops are set to be sown in 2020 compared with last year. Dr Simon Pope, Wynnstay crop protection manager, says thoughts have turned to spring cropping as the likelihood of getting crops in the ground this winter looks increasingly slim, following the prolonged wet period across the country.
He says: “The increased area to be sown next spring has put pressure on the availability of spring cereal seed.
“For growers to be certain their seed requirements are covered, I would recommend speaking to suppliers now, but growers should not be alarmed as there are still several viable spring cropping options that should be considered.
“We need to make the best of a bad situation this year, so getting some crops in the ground, even if it is not your first choice, is advisable.
“Decide what crop or variety will best fit your rotation and end market opportunities, then plan your cultivation techniques and agronomy accordingly.”
For those looking to grow a cereal crop, with a shortage of spring wheat seed available, Dr Pope suggests spring barley as an option.
“If well managed throughout the growing season, with some investment in agronomy, spring barley can offer great returns with readily available market options for both feed and malting,” he explains.
For growers with black-grass control at front of mind, spring barley is the most reliable spring cereal to choose, says Dr Pope.
“The crop is more competitive than spring wheat which should reduce the vigour of black-grass plants and reduce the number of heads/square metre.”
If there is no fit for spring cereals, Dr Pope recommends considering maize, as it could prove a good cash crop either for forage or to supply AD plants.
“Silage clamps are well stocked this year, but the wet weather has meant livestock have been housed early and we do not know how long winter will last, so there may be an increased demand for forage maize in 2020,” he says.
“There are also varieties which could be sold to local AD plants, so it is worth scoping out the market.”
With purchase decisions made, Dr Pope says thoughts should turn to cultivating fields for successful establishment.
“Currently we are faced with two scenarios on-farm depending on what happened during the autumn.
“Some growers may have been able to start cultivating but could not get any further to make a seedbed or drill, so the soil has sat in the furrow providing the perfect conditions for weeds to establish. For others, fields will be exactly as they were when the combine left after harvest,” he says.
“In both situations, the fields are likely to be greening over with both broadleaved weeds and grass-weeds. There is no harm in leaving this over winter, however, prior to any further field activities, an application of glyphosate would be advised to kill off the weeds present.”
When creating a seedbed for spring barley, Dr Pope says soil conditions should ideally be warm and dry, to allow crops to get ‘up and away’.
“Compacted soil and wet fields will impact yield, whereas a good seedbed will allow rapid germination and establishment and give crops a good start.
“We cannot predict what the weather will throw at us in early spring, but drilling between late February and mid-March will extend the growing season which will help the spring barley crop achieve its full potential. Drilling any later will impact yield,” he adds.
Once the seed is in the ground, light rolling is advisable where possible to achieve good contact between roots and soil which benefits establishment.
For maize crops, attention to detail pre-drilling and in the early stages of establishment is critical for a successful crop.
“When it comes to sowing, the optimum date range is between mid-April through to May depending on the variety and how warm the soil is. Maize requires a soil temperature of 10degC for rapid establishment and only drill as deeply as necessary for the conditions,” advises Dr Pope.
Dr Pope says there should already be an understanding of the nutrient status of each field, but reiterates the need to ensure adequate nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are applied, along with sulphur.
“Seedbed fertiliser will ensure the nutrients are immediately available to plants. For nitrogen, I would recommend applying 50 per cent of the total nitrogen in the seedbed, with the remaining balance applied at mid-tillering.”
To fully optimise crop yield potential, Dr Pope says growers should not be tempted to take shortcuts with the inputs. “An appropriate fungicide and PGR programme is critical to the success of the crop.”
Once the crop has enough leaf, he notes foliar applied trace elements will help the plant establish quickly, and if applied to demand throughout the growing period, crop yield and straw strength can be improved.
“If attention to detail is paid now to cropping choice, field preparation and the required crop agronomy, growers should reap the rewards of the investment in spring crops. All we have to do now is wait and see what the weather will bring,” Dr Pope says.