April 16, 2020

Article

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.

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