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Talking agronomy with Sam Patchett: Looking forward by looking back


Coming to the end of another season with most of our crops looking fit and full of promise, it’s a good time to reflect on what recent cropping years have taught us for the future. 

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As we go into another Ashes summer full of expectation following England’s exciting performance against New Zealand, we do so appreciating success in farming – like cricket – depends on the whole team rather than any standout individual performance. Like cricket too, everything comes down to making the most of the conditions while countering the threats they pose. And, just like the Test series, what really matters for us is the end result in August not how confident we feel before we start on the harvest.

While we’ve had our share of challenges this time around, it’s certainly been less stressful for most of us than coping with the backward crops of 2012/2013 or the acute disease pressures of 2013/14. So what can we learn from our recent experiences?


First and foremost, the past three seasons in particular have reinforced the importance of picking genetics to give us the greatest edge in our agronomy.

Characters like vigorous establishment, fast early development and strong light leaf spot resistance in oilseed rape and good septoria and rust resistance and robust standing power in wheat, have proved invaluable in our crop management. Equally, we’ve found it vital to maintain a diversity of genetics in our variety mix to spread risks, rather than growing varieties which appear different on the surface but share a similar parentage.

We can see exactly what’s in an agrochemical by reading the label. In just the same way the parentage of a variety tells us a lot about what it contains; something it’s as important as trial performance to consider in making choices we’ll have to live with the whole season.

Three different autumns have underlined just how much everything depends on good establishment. Vigorous varieties with sufficient get up and go are essential. So too is preserving enough soil moisture at all costs. We can always manage forward crops but we’re very much in the lap of the gods if they don’t get away strongly enough and struggle to cope with pest and weed challenges.


At the same time, we’ve learnt how vulnerable our soils and systems have become to the increasing extremes of weather the climate change scientists tell us to expect and the importance of prioritising soil structure to counter the threats of both flood and drought.


Effective incorporation of straw and manure to support organic matter levels, good management to restrict trafficking and the most appropriate cultivation strategies all have their part to play here. In some cases, we’ve found rotational ploughing can be really valuable and in others direct drilling has made a huge difference. Above all, it’s become clear we need to maintain the flexibility to work the land in the best way and at the right time for the particular season instead of letting our cultivation strategy be driven more by the requirements of our machinery than the needs of our soil.

Having the flexibility to employ spring cropping to deal with problems of the weather or grass-weeds is another thing we’ve really come to appreciate in recent years, employing flexible wheats like Mulika and Xi19 which can be sown anytime from November to April. Not being wedded to winter drilling regardless, means crops don’t get muddled in when machinery should not be anywhere near the ground for the health and well-being of both.

We’re increasingly discovering the role catch and cover crops can play in improving soil structure and trapping nutrients, too. And the value of whole-crop winter rye in controlling resistant ryegrass has become clear in fresh yields of over 50 tonnes/hectare at the Brotherton iFarm.

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