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Talking Arable with Jim Bullock: Living by the weather

We have 40% of the farm going into spring crops as yet I have not even decided what crop we are going to grow
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By early March last year we had actually drilled beans and wheat, but with rainfall averaging 5mm a day since mid-December we are still in a state of hibernation. To get 24 hours without rain just isn’t happening, but when it eventually dries up and we get all our spring crops planted we will be probably be into an extended spring drought.

 

I used to be so well organised when it came to our rotation and the varieties we grew, but now we have 40% of the farm going into spring crops and as yet I have not even decided what crop we are going to grow where, let alone which variety. Why? Because if the wet weather does not let up until the end of March, beans might well go out of the window. My next fallback could be peas, then if those look like getting too late it will be more spring wheat and God forbid, spring rape or worse still, linseed.

Merchants

Having been caught out in autumn 2012 with a shed full of bought-in seed which didn’t get drilled for 12 months, I am reluctant to order anything until I am sure we can plant it. I am always warned by merchants that if an order isn’t placed soon enough, supplies will run out and I will not be able to get the varieties of my choice. My experience with spring crops is the deciding factor as to whether you have a bumper crop or a disaster is the weather and your ability to decide when the ideal drilling conditions have arrived. I have very little interest in yield compared to other varieties. Disease ratings, yes, and I would really like to know more about the vigour at establishment, but that does not seem to be tested.

 

Between the deluges I have managed to inspect most of our wheat crops and I am slightly alarmed by the level of gout fly damage there is in some them. I understand the Severn valley and one or two areas in the eastern counties suffer from gout fly. There is a marked difference between the first and second wheats, with fewer infected plants in the first wheats. No surprise there, but getting the timing right for an autumn applied insecticide is nigh on impossible.

Seed dressing

The only solution is either an insecticidal seed dressing, which I am not happy to use, or delay drilling. So, as ever, it comes back to rotation, rotation, rotation. We have simply got to look at what nature does if we try to fight it.

 

March is the end of our financial year so it is a time for budgeting and persuading the bank manager that we are worth supporting for another twelve months. Although the last two years have been probably the worst in my farming career, we have managed to show a profit and even after the total wipe out of 2012 our profitability only dropped by 30%, which I am told is a great achievement. I put it down to devising a farming system which has significantly lowered our financial risk through adoption of direct-drilling and conservation agricultural practices. We will never hit the top yields but equally we are less exposed when there is a disaster. Our machinery line-up is not that impressive but at least it’s all paid for, which has enabled us to weather the recent storms.

 

For cash flow purposes I have to sell some grain pre-harvest and I think this year it is going to a case of waiting for as long as possible with the developing situation in the Ukraine and reports of very little wheat due to come out of Australia. I was being pestered by a couple of merchants early in the new year to sell forward at about £130/t as they felt prices were going to plummet and that would be a good deal!

 

  • 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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