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Talking Arable with Jim Bullock: Becoming positive about crops

I need a variety which is not going to die on me if a fungicide is delayed for a week or so
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I think we have got to accept there is not going to be such a thing as a normal season for the foreseeable future, which makes decision-making ever more critical.


Twenty four hours’ delay in spraying (or missing an application) has been the difference between success and in some cases crop failure.


Late-sown winter wheat crops which missed their autumn pre-em herbicides are now full of brome, forward wheats which had delayed flag leaf sprays are suffering from high levels of septoria, butworst of all were spring rape crops where we missed the critical initial flea beetle spray; some of these have been written off.


In each case we had the chemical on-farm but weather conditions stopped us getting the product applied at the critical time. If we are going to continue with extreme weather events, sprays are going to become ever more difficult to apply in a timely fashion, so either we will have to re-assess our cropping or accept lower yields.


Our choice of winter wheat varieties for next season has been based on comparing the treated and untreated plots at our local Frontier trial site. JB Diego, Relay and Invicta looked the cleanest when untreated and they are varieties which are acceptable at the local feed mill. I am really not so concerned about a few points on the HGCA yield tables, I need a variety which is not going to die on me if a fungicide is delayed for a week or so.


Our first wheats (Invicta) are looking reasonably well considering the amount of rainfall they have had to tolerate over the winter and late spring, however our second wheats are full of brome. Spray timings were critical; applying the Pacifica (iodosulfuron+mesosulfuron) too early missed the later emerging meadow brome but going too late the black-grass had started stem extension and was not controlled satisfactorily.


As for the spring rape, this has been hammered by flea beetle, pigeons, weeds, spray damage, waterlogging, low temperatures: in fact just about everything rape does not like.


Drilling was delayed until soil temperatures were up to 10-12degC towards the end of April and the crop was drilled into a perfect seedbed, with 50% of the nitrogen applied pre-drilling, every seed emerged but then the crop just sat there and did nothing, eventually turning purple and in some cases dying off.


So the decision was taken to spray off nearly 40% of the crop and re-drill with a cover crop to make use of the fertiliser which was applied and to grow some organic matter. It appears most of the spring rape in the area has been a failure this year. On the other hand our crops of spring beans and spring wheat will probably show the best margins as they have not cost a lot to grow and look like yielding reasonably well.


I missed Cereals this year for the first time since its inception as Barley 79, but family members who attended said everybody was talking about ways of increasing soil organic matter (SOM) and crop rotations as a way of combatting the black-grass plague. It really is a case of doing something now so we can reverse the trend in SOM decline.


I think we all know where we want to be with our soils but how we get there is the problem. Just retaining crop residues is not enough so we are swapping some of our straw for FYM with a local dairy farmer which will help on a few acres of land. Changing our rotation to winter wheat followed by spring wheat/oats and then spring beans would enable us to grow a couple of cover crops in the rotation and remain compliant within the crop diversification and Environmental Focus Area regulations.


In an ideal world we need a two- or three-year ley in our rotation but then the challenge is finding a market for the grass. Perhaps supplying an AD plant would be the answer.


  • 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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