This publication follows my winter article, Oilseed Rape – Time for a Break? – Which highlighted
alternative break crops to Oilseed Rape to manage crop rotation risk.
After reading through previous articles, I risk sounding like a broken record by saying rain continues to be a
dominating factor for UK arable farming. With yield potential and soil structure already damaged due to the
excess of rain, my once optimistic view of alternative cropping strategies is now evolving into weather dictation
and crisis management.
Government crisis management has been largely in the public eye of late due to COVID-19 but is a common
practice amongst many businesses. Crisis management encourages ‘worst case’ scenarios to be determined,
planned for and hopefully mitigated if an event occurs. Having worked both on farm and in the office, I believe
that farmers can benefit from this exercise. This is due to the impact and exposure external forces can have
on the UK agricultural industry and on-farm profitability as a whole. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to
provoke thought and planning for growers to explore the options prior to entering into the spring drilling season.
With the NFU estimating that only 40% of intended cereals were drilled, as opposed to typically 90%, by the
end of autumn last year, spring cereals are becoming a likely option for growers. With a shortage of spring
wheat seed in circulation, an obvious choice for growers is a crop of spring barley. However, as many other
growers are in a similar situation, this provides concerns of over supply of domestic grain which has been
mirrored in the forward selling price of barley.
From an agronomic perspective, with weather restricted herbicide application in summer/autumn 2019, poor
establishment and a warm wet winter, an increase in spring blackgrass germination is also forecast.
Collectively with poor forward prices, accumulating blackgrass plants numbers and water damaged soil
structures an increased risk of an unprofitable spring barley crop is inevitable. I will now attempt to conclude
this somewhat gloomy outlook in a positive light, here goes…
For many growers the challenge is striking a balance between integrated farm management and profitability.
Although the above points highlight the potential threats to many arable businesses, I try to promote a ‘silver
lining’ mentality. I believe that the 2020 year provides an opportunity for growers to focus less on trying to force
cash sapping/unprofitable grain sales and more on their soil health. With waterlogged land, the use of cover
crops over fallowing land is favourable as root structure and plant uptake allows soil to dry more effectively.
With a variety of legumes mixes available a potential reduction of granular fertiliser may also be achievable in
the following crop. Although there is a no inclusion of soil fertility and health on the balance sheet, hopefully
improved blackgrass control, soil nutrients and structure will lead to a more profitable winter wheat to follow.