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Talking Arable with Neil MacLeod: Drought pushes crops to the brink

The old adage ‘we are all in the same boat’ is an irritating reminder of the unseasonably weird weather patterns we have experienced over the last six months.

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Hearing this on an almost daily basis, however, is not overly helpful, as it does not create any solutions on how I can keep the Southesk boat afloat, for this we need a lot more water.

 

Don’t get me wrong, this summer has been lovely and while holidaying in West Yorkshire last week, at times I could have sworn I was on the continent. But the damage done by the dry weather prior to summer is showing no signs of abating as we race towards an early harvest with little rainfall forecast.

 

With only 23mm of rain in June, compared to 99mm in June 2017 and 116mm in June 2016, Scotland is currently experiencing the driest June and July since 2010 and the third driest period for 40 years. Some rivers not too far from us are at their lowest levels ever recorded, and soil moisture levels are at their lowest since 1978.

 

Our potato irrigators have been running constantly for almost six weeks to ensure crop survival, bulk up tuber numbers and ensure good skin finish. With a 45mm soil moisture deficit, they are unlikely to be turned off soon, unless we are instructed to do so by our local environmental agency, which is closely monitoring water levels in our abstraction area, so let us keep our fingers crossed.

 

An interesting patchwork has appeared on many of our lighter wheat fields, with the difference between droughted, shrivelled up flag leaves and partially filled ears in sharp contrast to heavier areas with deep green full flags and barn-filling ears. I would recommend to those of you who have yield mapping functions on combines to turn them off this harvest, as creating colourful maps to stick in a folder will only pose as a painful reminder of what could have been.

 

Our oilseed rape, which I must say is looking our most promising crop, is also showing signs of throwing in the towel prematurely, with patches of alternaria appearing on the lighter land and any stressed overlapped areas. Let us hope the pod stick applied with the desiccant will be enough to glue the pods together as harvest approaches and pray, yes pray, for no high winds in the coming weeks, which due to our coastal location is unlikely.

 

Continuing on this drought theme, 40 hectares of low input species-rich grass, sown as part of a wider agri-environment scheme, has failed to establish and at a seed cost of £230/ha will have to be re-sown. These schemes are fundamental to the profitability of our business, especially in years like this and it is important to take the longer term view of the wider benefits to finance and infrastructure that they bring.

 

On a more positive note, harvest straw prices are looking to be at least 25% up on last year with a call for arable farmers to disengage the combine choppers this year. This in itself creates a mind battle between the agronomist in me and the businessman. Our rotational straw policy, as I like to call it, serves us well in balancing soil nutrition and time requirements by chopping rotationally, with the remainder sold to local livestock and carrot producers. With lower crop returns expected this harvest I am guessing that the businessman will win the battle this harvest, not only to boost our own gross margins but also to help out the livestock industry. As I write this article (July 19), harvest is just around the corner for us with grain stores cleaned and fumigated, machinery serviced and ready and the combine looking shiny. Regardless of what this harvest brings we must try to look forward to next year with cautious optimism as a new dance with Mother Nature begins.


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