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Talking Arable with Jim Bullock: Waiting for black-grass to germinate

Sitting on one’s hands waiting for black-grass to germinate can be a very painful process.

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September being so dry (5mm rainfall,) it was obvious what was going to happen once the weather patterns changed (85mm so far in October).


We were fortunate to have areas at lower risk to black-grass which have either been ploughed or come out of a summer cover crop, which we felt we could get drilled in early October. But it left us with 30% of our wheat area still unsown by the third week of the month, not a comfortable situation. If this is going to be the norm then we will need to double up on our drilling capacity.


If we are going to be forced into growing more spring wheat for various reasons (black-grass and the three cropping rule) then Belipi is going to be a useful variety with a sowing window from late October through until April and yields to match some of the best feed varieties. I have purchased a small amount of seed with the intention of planting it at various time intervals through the next five months to see how it performs on our land.


While still on the subject of black-grass, all of our break crops are going to be spring-sown along with an area of spring wheat, in a second wheat slot, just to try and lower our dependence on specific grass-weed chemistry.


So far the spring cropping area has been sprayed off twice and with luck will get another application prior to winter setting in. As much as I would like to leave the land untouched and direct drill in the spring, where we have large volumes of chopped straw this can leave the soil very wet on some of heavy soils, so if it dries up this autumn I will very lightly cultivate the surface with an old Flexitine, just to mix the straw in a bit and provide some loose soil to weather. This will also help the soil warm up when we come to drill in the spring.


Our cover crops have gone into over-drive over the past month, with the oil radish over a metre tall and flowering. The vetch and grazing rye mixture although perhaps not producing quite as much biomass has certainly dried the soil out to the point it would be possible to direct drill into it, whereas a few metres away the soil is saturated. My dilemma now is what to do with all the material we have produced.


My feeling is that production has peaked, so should it be killed off and/or chopped so as not to cause a problem with drilling the spring crop, but it is providing a wildlife haven for hares, snipe partridge, masses of small birds and not to mention bees and millions of insects so I think we will leave it over-winter.


Next month, BASE-UK has arranged a field trip to France looking at cover crops and their management, so perhaps I will be able to get some answers then.


I hate spending money on pieces of metal which depreciate the moment they arrive on-farm, hence the reason why we have a machinery line-up which would have been very fashionable at the beginning of the millennium. But the time comes for change and we have been lucky enough to try several of the latest tractors – ‘reds and greens’. I like all the buttons and screens (even if it takes five minutes and my reading glasses just to set the rate of drop on the linkage) but I do not like the level of fuel consumption that seems to come with all the various emission controls. Our existing tractors can subsoil 2ha/hour using just nine litres of fuel/ha. The best of the bunch we tried could do the same job using 11litres but the worst used over 16 litres. Is this progress?

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