A move towards spring cropping seems inevitable, as growers seek to tackle weeds such as black-grass and improve soil health. Marianne Curtis reports.
While it is difficult to be precise about the extent to which growers are embracing spring cropping, figures and anecdotal evidence nevertheless point towards a trend.
Defra provisional crop areas published in June show the spring barley area in England increased by 13% to 422,000 hectares. Beans were up by 5.2% to 173,000ha and peas rose by 18.7% to 49,900ha.
Dry conditions in some areas this autumn, which have led to failure to establish stale seedbeds for black-grass control and difficulties in establishing rape, as well as cabbage stem flea beetle, could mean growers look to grow more spring crops next year.
But how does such a move stack up economically?
Mark Hemmant, technical manager of Agrovista, which has conducted trials on spring cropping as part of Project Lamport in Northamptonshire, says: “It is a no-brainer when you have winter wheat with a lot of black-grass and a full herbicide programme on 10-tonne land doing 5t, 6t or 7t/ha.
“We had spring wheat doing 7t/ha planted at the end of April after cover crops. With winter wheat, you are looking at a total cost of £120-£150/t. Spring wheat gave a higher yield with a lower spend.”
Less herbicide, fungicide, nitrogen and plant growth regulator are needed for spring wheat. However, seed is more expensive, as seed rates are higher at 550 seeds/sq.metre, because the crop has less opportunity to tiller and does not achieve the same level of establishment on heavy compared with light soils, says Mr Hemmant.
Jonathan Dennis, farming consultant at Strutt and Parker, agrees that where black-grass is a serious problem, gross margins are better with a spring crop.
He says: “For argument’s sake, if you had 150ha of wheat but then spray off 20ha because of black-grass, you are effectively losing 1.5t/ha as well as costs already incurred.
“In most cases, we are seeing crops such as spring barley and spring wheat outperforming second and some first winter wheats where black-grass is a major problem.”
See also: Boost yields with spring P and K
Spring barley is a popular option, says Mr Dennis. “It can be established later [than spring wheat], giving chance to create a good seedbed and allowing soil to warm, which is important on land with a high clay content.
“Input costs are lower and there are fewer passes than with winter wheat, where input costs are about £450/ha.
“Spring wheat is also a viable option on most farms, despite not being as competitive as spring barley against black-grass. Our highest yield this year was 8.53t/ha on Hanslope clay in Suffolk, which is very good.”
But there is still much to learn about the best way to approach spring cropping, Mr Dennis believes.
He says: “As an industry, we have had our hand forced and are reacting accordingly. However, we need to continue professional and on-farm R&D before we can decide on the best way to go about it.”
A key factor is to have patience and only drill spring crops when weather is favourable, says Mr Hemmant.
“The golden rule is to grow it when conditions are good. It needs to be out of the ground and growing as quickly as possible. Modern drills can go in any conditions, but it is best to wait until conditions are right.
“In the trials, we have previously drilled in mid-March, but this year it was April.”
Applying nitrogen to the seedbed helps establishment and trace elements can also be important for spring crops, says Mr Hemmant.
He says: “Spring crops can be a bit hungry for trace elements due to rapid growth. Carry out tissue tests to check what they need. This could be magnesium, copper, boron and sulphur.”
Regarding fungicides, cheaper chemicals or lower rates of more expensive chemicals can be used, he says. “With spring barley, there is more flexibility with black-grass herbicides.”
While spring barley is an easier crop to grow than spring wheat, there is scope to get good returns from spring milling and feed wheats, adds Mr Hemmant.
He says: “If you choose to sow quality wheats, Mulika is popular. There will be occasions where a high yielding spring feed wheat will outplay a quality wheat with lower yields.”
So what are the risks of spring cropping? Mr Dennis says: “You are more reliant on weather than with a winter crop, so it is essential crops are established well and this requires weather to be favourable.
“In drier areas, there is a better opportunity to get the crop drilled, whereas in wetter areas it can be difficult to get on. It comes down to the skill of people on the ground and utilising windows of opportunity when they become apparent.”
Spring barley (malting)
Spring wheat (milling)
Spring beans (human consumption)
Peas (large blue)
Source: Strutt & Parker
Spring crops are often grown on contract, so failure to meet specifications can result in penalties, warns Mr Dennis.
On the plus side, spring cropping can help spread workload, particularly as land area farmed grows larger.
Mr Dennis says: “Spring crops enable you to spread the risk in autumn and get the timing better so you are not rushed into drilling wheat into dry seedbeds in mid-September on high black-grass pressure land.”
As well as cereals, other spring crops are worthy of consideration, says Mr Dennis.
“Sugar beet is interesting. On heavier land it can show a much better gross margin than anything else. It requires drilling in early to mid-March.
“Establishing the seedbed in early March can cause problems – poor cultivation can make the black-grass situation worse rather than better.
“However, you do have herbicides with varying modes of action when compared to cereals. The main downside would be unless you can start to lift in late September, you could be left trying to muddle in wheat after. In this situation, a second spring crop would be advisable.”
While spring-sown pulses are not noted for their ability to outcompete black-grass, they offer an opportunity for autumn weed control and are often short-changed in gross margin calculations, says PGRO chief executive Roger Vickers.
He says: “People do not pick up the overall benefits. In reality we are in a situation where rotations are expanding and we need to look at the whole rotation over a wider cycle.
“With peas and beans, you are getting 50kg/ha of free N, which should be added to the gross margin of peas and beans.
“It is acknowledged there is a residual benefit to first wheat of up to 1t/ha extra yield – worth £125-£130/t – so why not attribute this to beans? If pulses were evaluated on this basis, you are looking at £200/ha in terms of fertiliser and extra margin.”
Some growers may be tempted to try novel crops such as borage, soya or ahiflower, says Mr Dennis. “As more research is done and varieties get better they are coming to the fore. The main thing farmers want is consistency: something they can rely on.”
But when growing such crops, it is important to have a contract in place, warns Chris Spedding, commercial director at Premium Crops.
He says: “Markets are there for a certain amount of growth, but not indefinite. Over a five-year period, people who have pre-contracted achieve better values – £30-£50/t more than selling it on the open market.”
Whatever spring crops growers decide on for next year, spring cropping looks as though it is a trend which is here to stay.
Spring oats (milling)
Source: Premium Crops
Mr Dennis says: “We are in the situation now where we cannot go back to the way it was even if an Atlantisesque chemical comes along again.
“It is unsustainable. People must be honest about it. If we go back to farming the way we did 10 years ago, we will end up back in the same situation. There is no substitute for a good rotation and a good rotation includes spring cropping.”