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Talking Agronomy with Ken McTaggart: Avoiding the knock-on effects of summer drought

It is past mid-July and harvest is firmly underway. Not a drop of rain since I last wrote and scorching temperatures have certainly dented our expectations. Even though most crops have appeared to cope reasonably well, exactly how serious that dent is remains to be seen. 

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A dry, early harvest will clear the decks nicely for autumn planting. However, we are going to have to be very careful with our cultivations if the drought is not also going to damage next season’s crops. We know the rain will come. But we have no idea when or how much. So we have to set-up our ground to enable it to re-wet in the best possible way, and have sufficient patience in our OSR drilling to wait until it does.


This has to be the season for top-down working with minimal subsoiling. The weather will have done a decent job of soil shattering at depth so we do not need deep cultivation. Especially if it brings up boulders that are almost impossible to work down without major moisture loss, and provide an ideal sanctuary for grass-weeds and slugs.

Instead, we need to cultivate lightly and consolidate well for ground that will both take and preserve moisture to give us decent OSR seedbeds and only sow when we have them. Vigorous, fast developing varieties do well for us in Kent even from sowing well into the second week of September. So we can afford to be patient.

As well as patience, establishment care will be more important than ever with our oilseed rape this season. In particular, the most consistent sowing depth; seedbed nitrate and phosphate where possible; thorough and even consolidation; and, robust early pest and weed control.

 

Although time is more on our side with winter cereals, we will be taking precisely the same top-down cultivation approach here. In this case, though, our whole focus is on getting the best possible glyphosate grass-weed control ahead of planting.

This is particularly important with black-grass and ryegrass proving so problematic in many wheat crops across the South East this season; the cold wet spring getting in the way of both post-emergence herbicide activity and crop competitiveness wherever autumn control was less than ideal.
Pre-planting glyphosate is one of our most important black-grass sprays these days. So our priority is to set up a fine, firm stale seedbed as soon as possible after drilling. Wherever we can get a good early flush of weed growth and have sufficient time ahead of drilling we spray it off and set up a second stale seedbed.

Following the Stow Longa recipe, though, we keep a six week gap between the last cultivation and drilling, and move as little soil as we can at drilling to wake up the least amount of weed seed. Equally important in our red-coded grass-weed fields is delaying wheat drilling until the second half of October, growing varieties Agrii research shows to be the most weed competitive, and sowing them at high enough seed rates.

Alongside these immediate cultural controls, building rotational strength is a must for us on our highest grass-weed risk ground. We are increasingly challenging second wheats, looking instead to winter beans or a range of spring crops. As well as being the best fit in most cases, we find barley our safest spring option in margin-earning – even where drought really hits performance.

Our key consideration here, though, is the best rotational value for our biggest earners – first wheat and winter rape. Providing our other cropping delivers this, its absolute performance is very much secondary.


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