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Talking Roots with Darryl Shailes: On guard for blight outbreaks

At last the weather is changing. Hopefully the potato fields will quickly start greening up and develop good canopy growth to offset their cool and wet start to spring.

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Growers should be on guard for blight outbreaks according to Darryl Shailes #talkingroots

The crops will need to make up growth, as it is early canopy development and the subsequent light interception which is one of the main drivers of yield. With maximum light being available in the run up to the longest day, it is a short period of time to get this right. Anything which restricts the canopy development and the subsequent tuber bulking rate will reduce yield.


If the soil conditions are poor this can have a big effect and PCN and weed control are very important, but something which is often overlooked is water availability. Early water – either from rain or irrigation – has a big effect on canopy development and might be essential this season, as no-doubt it will now become hot and dry.


Increasing yields should be a key objective for the UK potato farmer, and it has been good to follow the debates about this in the press and on the radio. What is really clear, is how important a role science plays in bringing about increases in productivity, helping agriculture achieve this by driving up yields.


There was a time when it seemed agricultural research was quite detached – something which went on in institutes and universities – and never really got to influence what was happening on the farms in the UK.


In the last few years this appears to have changed and now ‘beneficial impact’ is one of the drivers of research in the UK.

The new director of Rothamsted, Professor Achim Dobermann, spoke at our conference last year, commenting about how he wanted more of the institute’s research to be translated into bringing gains to UK farming.


See also: Taking the lab to the field


We’ve seen the success of the YEN project from ADAS bring high yielding wheat growers together to help drive the yields of wheat forwards. Universities are becoming much more open and engaging about the research and development programmes going on in their agricultural departments.


Closer to home, the Strategic Potato Farm initiative from AHDB Potatoes is another excellent way of bringing the latest science into our part of farming, potato growing. I visited the trials at James Daws’ farm, in Staffordshire, last year and found them very interesting.


This season, with the initiative also being extended to Elveden Estates, in the East, not far from where I work, I’m even more excited about the trials and demonstrations I’ll be able to look. The range of topics on show, combined with our own research and development in potatoes should help bring more hands-on science to our grower base.


This season we are looking at:


    • Blight control – in particular how new products and old are coping with the new aggressive blight strains
    • Alternaria control – to try and assess the impact on yield of a good control programme across of range of popular varieties
    • Weed control – looking at new herbicide developments and their impact on weed control and also yield
    • Continuing our work on PCN management.

Integrating the latest science into potato agronomy and potato growing is vitally important to the industry as a whole, helping us and our growers to keep moving productivity forward.


One thing which would definitely influence potato yields is if we experience an early epidemic of potato blight, as we saw in 2014 following a similar mild winter. That year blight was readily being found under fleeced crops up and down the country, and led to early infection pressure which caught many napping (the new aggressive strains of blight not bothering whether there had been a Smith Period or not).


This year I’ve not heard of reports under fleece but blight has been seen in glasshouses, so as the weather warms up and crops start to emerge we need to be on our guard right from the outset.


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