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Talking Arable with Neil MacLeod: Desperate for rain

As I contemplate what to write in my first article for Arable Farming, I ponder over a variety of hot topics I could use hopefully to make a good first impression. Topics such as Brexit, Michael Gove and his visions for the future, rising cereal markets, increasing fixed costs, the environment, the pound, benchmarking, agronomy…..the list goes on.

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In time I am sure we will cover them all and more. No, today I have decided to keep things simple and start the ball rolling with a topic which sits at the forefront of basically everything we do in farming, the weather.

 

Now I am guessing that, as a writer from the North, you will all be expecting me to start whingeing about wet conditions. On the contrary, it is the lack of precipitation which looks set to have a significantly detrimental effect on our business come harvest.

 

Our wettest March since 2006 saw 131mm of rain, three times our March average, and put paid to any thoughts of getting the drill out. So in the third week of April we managed to sow more than 400 hectares of spring barley and oats into surprisingly good conditions. We had moisture, good seedbeds and, most importantly for a late sown crop, we had good soil temperatures. All we needed then was a bit of luck to try and build yield into these crops with a narrower window of opportunity.

 

What has happened since, however, is quite unimaginable for coastal Angus, where we have experienced no rain in seven weeks and, understandably, the word suffering is an understatement.

 

Our spring barley should have awns at paintbrush, and the panicles on spring oats should be about to emerge. Neither of these key growth stages look likely to happen any time soon, with some crops on lighter land no more than ankle height. What is even more concerning is that some of our winter cereals on lighter, shallower soils are burning up, and for them the money is all spent. Every day which goes by, our yields are suffering and our percentage of crops forward sold are increasing, made worse (or better?) by the fact the grain markets are heading tentatively in the right direction for the first time in about five years.

 

And then there is the daily battle with oneself on what to spend on these struggling crops, which are even more susceptible to disease and trying to ensure what little inputs we are applying are done in the correct manner, with blistering heat and high winds making spraying a tactical nightmare.

 

One crop on-farm which has stood up to the weather remarkably well has been the winter oilseed rape, of which this year we are growing 180 hectares of Incentive and SY Harnas. As with all our winter crops, when the weather did finally improve in April, it was difficult to stop them racing through their growth stages, with OSR going from welly boot height to flowering in about two weeks and wheats going from T1 to T3 in 4 weeks.

 

The flowering period for the OSR lasted a good five weeks however, with some lovely weather helping ensure we have lots of generously filled pods, which will hopefully pay dividends come harvest. We are in our second year of OSR variety trials for Bayer, with six varieties sown in strip trials. These were all direct drilled on the same day and have received identical inputs, so it will be interesting to see which one comes out on top over the weighbridge at harvest.

 

It feels like it has been a long spring and harvest will be upon us quickly, so with holiday season for all staff fast approaching, everyone got a well-earned earned trip to the Royal Highland Show to see the latest offerings available at what is the annual flagship of Scottish agriculture.


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Talking Arable with Sophie Alexander: A sense of perspective Talking Arable with Sophie Alexander: A sense of perspective

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