Spring break crops can be a low input solution to persistent black-grass and disease pressures. Chloe Palmer finds out more...
For some, an exceptionally dry summer and autumn or a failed autumn-sown oilseed rape crop might be a reason to consider growing a spring break crop.
There is now more choice than ever, so selecting a suitable crop for the farm situation can be bewildering.
Philip Dolbear is knowledge exchange manager for AHDB Cereals and Oilseeds in the South West.
He believes thinking about why a spring crop is to be included in the rotation is the first step in the decision- making process.
He says: “Weed and disease control is the main reason most growers contemplate including a spring break crop in their rotation, and black-grass is the most common problem, especially in the East.
“Spreading the workload, especially over the drilling season or during harvest, is another factor. Growing a spring break crop can reduce the need for additional labour or machinery, thus resulting in a reduction in fixed costs.
“Spring crops tend to be lower input, lower output crops and may bring significant soil health benefits because of the increased organic matter they provide. Some crops help to build fertility,” says Mr Dolbear.
He adds that farmers should see a spring break crop in the context of the overall spring rotation, rather than as a stand-alone crop.
“There will inevitably be lower value crops within the rotation, but for example, spring beans are a very volatile crop, in spite of this they make an excellent entry crop for first wheat.
“It is also important to consider the disease and weed control profile, as well as the agronomic constraints of the crops grown either side of the break crop,” Mr Dolbear points out.
David Parish, an agronomist with TAG, agrees, and says in the East where he and his clients are based, controlling black-grass is the driving factor dictating choice of break crop.
“For many, spring barley has always been the spring crop of choice, but for those looking for a break crop, spring beans have performed consistently except in last year’s drought. Spring oilseed rape is a high-risk crop due to flea beetle and pollen beetle and is, therefore, probably best avoided.
“Spring oats are increasingly popular especially where growers can achieve the milling quality as they provide a strong return and are also a good break crop before first wheat,” Mr Parish says.
He suggests farmers looking to grow spring break crops for the first time need to be aware of the constraints when working soils in spring to avoid lasting damage to structure.
He says: “It is important to be patient when looking to cultivate in spring because the soils are very tender and may appear dry on the surface but are likely to remain wet further down the profile.
"For some, carrying out primary and secondary cultivations in autumn might be the best solution so minimal seed preparation is required in spring.
“This can also be beneficial because the minimal soil movement at this time will minimise the spring flush of black-grass,” he says.
Looking at novel and niche spring break crops is another option available, but Mr Parish says farmers should always research the market carefully for information about these crops.
“Niche crops can perform very well but they show the biggest swing between the average top and lower margins so where there is no track record of growing these crops on-farm, careful thought should be given before trying them. It is important to estimate the risk-reward equation for such crops if they are being grown for the first time,” he says.
Neil Padbury is seeds and marketing manager for Premium Crops, which is the biggest contract buyer of linseed in the UK, and he acknowledges the company would not recommend growing any niche crop speculatively.
“Growers should always ensure they have an end market for crops such as linseed, canary seed and borage. We provide a complete service, including the seed, agronomy, advice and a guaranteed market for the crop,” Mr Padbury says.
Linseed is the most popular niche crop and the different varieties are used for a wide cross-section of end uses, Mr Padbury says.
“Brown linseed varieties are used in conventional animal feed markets, for industrial end uses and for human food. There are early through to late maturing varieties available with the latter generally giving the better yields.
“Yellow linseed tends to be sold for human consumption and are found in many products, including confectionery breads, but a very clean end product is needed for this market.
“Here in the UK our temperate, mild climate is ideal for producing linseed with a higher proportion of Omega-3, which is highly sought after by the French market for use in premium animal feeds.”
Mr Padbury points to the wide sowing window for linseed extending throughout April.
“The later sowing period for linseed means soil conditions are usually optimal and there is plenty of opportunity to deal with blackgrass using stale seedbeds. The crop is harvested from mid to end of September; delaying harvest to October is not advisable,” Mr Padbury says.
Linseed should be harvested when the top half of the plant is dry and the lower half is still green. If left longer than this, the amount of lignin in the plant increases and makes it difficult to combine. ‘A dry day and a sharp knife’ is needed for easy combining of linseed, Mr Padbury suggests.
Linseed grows well on most soil types, according to Mr Padbury and if soil conditions allow for establishment in spring, it will yield well on heavier soils. The main problem pest is the flax flea beetle, which can affect spring-sown linseed.
Canary seed is an increasingly popular niche spring crop but demand still outstrips UK supply, Mr Padbury says.
“This is an annual cereal plant so not strictly a break crop, but it is sold for the bird seed market and therefore we can currently sell more than we can grow. One of the benefits to canary seed is it will grow on most soils and has a short growing season, as it is sown from mid April to May and is harvested in mid-September.
“It could be viewed as a low input catch crop, as too much nitrogen can cause lodging and it does not suffer from disease or pests. There are few chemicals approved for use on canary seed and it rarely causes a volunteer problem,” Mr Padbury says.
Borage is grown by a limited number of growers due to there being a restricted market for it. It does require two passes to harvest it and a specially adapted combine and Mr Padbury cautions that problems with borage volunteers are commonplace.
For those looking to grow these crops for the first time, Mr Padbury advises that having a marketing contract in place is essential. He urges growers to think carefully about how the crop will fit into the wider rotation.
“Think about what the break crop is to achieve within the rotation. In particular, make sure the agronomy of the break crop fits in with the preceding crop and also the one that follows. It is important to follow the guidance you are given from your adviser if you want to get the best results from the crop.”