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Talking Arable: Jim Bullock: Patience for planting

Although it has been wet, it has been mild and our crops have continued to grow throughout the winter
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We were fortunate to have a couple of dry weeks late in November through early December which enabled us get up-to-date with most of the autumn spraying.


There was even a temptation to plant some winter beans, but thank goodness we thought soil temperatures were too low so decided to wait until early spring; had we gone ahead they would have rotted for sure.


Since then it has just rained every other day. We received over double the 2012 rainfall in December, and January has already racked up more than 105mm, twice that of 2013, and we thought last winter was wet.


Over the last couple of decades you were seen as a bit of a loser if you grew spring crops. Either your management was not up to the mark, or you had insufficient machinery or funds to get an autumn drilled crop established.


Now the wheel has turned full circle and we are back where we were 50 years ago before we had the armoury (of what now appear to be failing) herbicides.


Other than the obvious economic benefits of reduced input costs and easier cashflow, it is possible to delay cropping decisions to take advantage of changes in commodity prices.


Being able to access land for hedge-cutting and drainage maintenance over winter has been a great advantage for us, difficult to quantify, but certainly takes the pressure off those three or four weeks around the end of August.


There are obvious risks involved, usually due to dry seedbeds, poor establishment and indifferent weed control. We have had a reasonable degree of success direct drilling spring wheat; yielding around 6-6.5 tonnes/ha, and when it can be sold at a premium, it can be as profitable a second winter feed wheat.


There is a view that one year’s spring cropping will solve your grass-weed problems; not so I am afraid. We are able to manage our black-grass, bromes and to a degree our ryegrass problems with the occasional spring crop but now we are finding other more difficult to grasses appearing, a certain fescue for example.


This variety has a very fine, shiny leaf and, according to our agronomist, very similar to types found in amenity grass-seed mixes; known for being persistent and hard wearing, so not unsurprisingly hard to control.


From experience we know Atlantis (mesosulfuron +iodosulfuron) does not do much to it and it needs good conditions for glyphosate to work well.


To really get on top of grass-weeds in the past we have used double ‘stacked’ breaks between wheat crops, which have worked. For example, winter wheat followed spring wheat, then into spring beans and if time and conditions are on your side, winter rape, before going back into winter wheat again (all direct-drilled of course).


So we have two cereals, followed by two broadleaved crops, and two spring-sown crops between winter crops. Financially it does not look appealing, but if you have uncontrollable black-grass it might be your only solution.


Although it has been wet, it has been mild and our crops have continued to grow throughout the winter. Wheat that went yellow back in late October is now looking green again, probably due to continued root growth and the plants’ ability to pick up nutrients further down in the soil.


Our DSV Terralife cover crops have been thinned by a couple of frosts, the sunflowers and buckwheat being the first to go, but other species have come on to fill in the spaces. Even some of the clovers in the nitrogen fixing mixtures have survived and we have flowers on the forage peas at the end of January.


Although I like the concept of the complex mixtures, I think for our present capabilities a simple mix of phacelia, mustard and perhaps Deeptil radish would work well; at least we could use a graminicide to deal with any volunteers which came up after establishment.


  • Jim Bullock farms in a family partnership at Guarlford, near Malvern, Worcestershire. He is a keen proponent of conservation tillage techniques and is a founder member of the conservation agriculture group BASE-UK.
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