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Talking Arable with Jim Bullock: Early February is not a good time to be looking at crops


Don’t look-Proper winter weather makes the crops seem stressed!

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Early February is not a good time to be looking at crops. They probably look more stressed this winter due to some proper winter weather; frosts and sub-zero daytime temperatures.


Locally I have seen several agronomists buzzing around my neighbours’ fields making frantic notes, which will no doubt turn into chemical deliveries once there is the slightest chance of getting a sprayer out. It is rare that we do anything useful in February other than on the odd occasion applying nitrogen to backward crops or spraying off stubbles prior to spring cropping.


But still one has to make plans and I think now is the time to see just how well or otherwise our crops have come through the winter. I am yet again pleased to say we have no winter oilseed rape as there are now flocks of several thousand pigeons devouring crops in the district.


Our wheat falls into two distinct categories; early and late sown. The early drilled crops (first week in October – late by my old standards) now have more than 750 tillers/sq.m and the later drilled crops planted at the end of the month have anything between 300 and 500 tillers/sq.metre. Using the ADAS/Defra advice suggests our early drilled crops contain up to 30kg N/hectare and the later ones

as little as 5kg N/ha, which suggests to me we are losing 25 kg/N/ha by delayed drilling…yet another financial cost and more nitrates in our water courses. But the early sown crops are already showing gout fly symptoms.


Gout symptoms
Later drilled wheat crops planted at the end of the month have between 300 and 500 tillers/sq.m.

If we are going to try and farm in an energy neutral environment we cannot afford to lose that amount of N, so perhaps if we feel we are going to have to plant a late crop we ought to establish a suitable cover crop much earlier in the season and then go for a spring cereal. We will have to break out of this obsession with growing winter wheat. There are alternatives but they may not seem so financially attractive.

Annual meeting

At the recent BASE-UK annual meeting we had four speakers: a professor; Adrian Newton presently working at the James Hutton Institute; two Nuffield scholars: Tom Sewell (see AF, December 2014) and Robert Richmond whose scholarship looked at building healthy soils, and to conclude Soil First for Farming’s Steve Townsend. The message which came through from all four speakers was we cannot continue with our present farming systems, we have burnt up far too much of the soil’s natural fertility and just pouring on more chemical inputs will not solve the problem.


Prof Newton has, among other things, been researching growing cereal variety blends and when you hear that it is possible to see yields increase by in excess of 10% by planting a blend (barley) rather than straight varieties, you wonder why we are not all doing it. But it is not too popular with the seed industry and in the case of malting barley the maltsters are not interested. But in France a number of growers plant mixed wheat varieties and can produce acceptable flour qualities.


Mr Richmond is an organic dairy farmer and is obsessed with increasing his soil carbon levels because, he believes, whether you be organic or ‘conventional’ (whatever that is) we have got to rebuild the levels of soil carbon if we are going to continue productive farming in the UK.


Mr Sewell reported the UK has just another 100 harvests if we continue farming using present technology and systems. He is very much of the opinion after travelling during his scholarship, conservation agriculture and no-till is the way forward. He and his family, as was reported in AF, are practising what he preaches and have completely gone down this route.


Mr Townsend, whose expertise is called upon, not only in the UK, but also in Ireland and France, hammered home the message to members increasing soil carbon was the key to solving a number of farming problems from weed control through to soil compaction.


  • 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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