It’s the middle of winter – but it really doesn’t feel that way. There have only been a couple of frosts so far, and they have all been pretty minor. Cold weather is actually an important part of the farming year fo us, as it stops the cycle of some pests and diseases. Aphids and slugs are both sensitive to the cold, but perhaps more important is are the fungal diseases, particularly on our wheat plants. A very mild winter, like the one we had in 2015/16, can see so much disease creep onto the leaves that we start off the spring with yellow plants. That is not likely to be such a severe problem this year, for two reasons. Firstly, we now grow only specific varieties with good innate genetic disease resistance, but also the earlier you plant a crop, the more susceptible to disease it will be. This year – or last autumn to be precise – was certainly not a time when crops were early drilled, because it was so very wet.
We currently have three crops in the ground, all of which are just about visible at this point. The oilseed rape is superficially fairly satisfactory, but on closer inspection there is a large problem with flea beetle larvae. Just about every single plant, over an area of 160 hectares, is infested with them. This becomes a real problem when the larvae move into the stem of the plant, something which is occurring currently in about a third of the plants – but that number will rise as the spring goes on. If, as in 2019, we have another dry spring, the problem become magnified, so that is one more reason to hope for rain at the right times.
The wheat, which was all drilled by the end of October (just) is actually looking quite good in general. There is one bad field, but luckily that is small. The rest has established well given that conditions at drilling were far from ideal. Rabbits are starting to become a problem again, having been relatively low in numbers for many years. Some fields have been heavily grazed, forcing us to get out the electric rabbit fencing, and also call the ferret man to come and scare them off.
Finally, our winter beans, drilled in the middle of November, have appeared above ground after a prolonged period of germination. The cool wet soils didn’t do much for their speed of emergence, but better late than never. A series of mechanical problems with our seed and drill made getting this crop into the ground very difficult, so it is a relief to see that all the hassle was worth it. We definitely learnt a lesson there – never put nutrient seed dressing on beans!
Almost more of a problem has been the wind, which has made it very difficult to spray the fields after drilling, something which is very time critical in our system. This is because we do not kill off the plants already in the field, either with cultivations or chemicals, before we drill the wheat into them. This means that it is essential that we can do this before the new wheat seedlings emerge out of the ground, or else it will be too late, and the crop will be ruined. Luckily we have just about managed to find the times and places to make it work, so are about up-to-date with what needs doing.
Elsewhere on the farm the oilseed rape continues to grow, having been held back by the very dry September. Unfortunately, although it has mostly established well, we are already starting to find the larvae of flea beetle infesting some of the plants, which could spell big trouble next spring and summer. The cover crops we have planted this year are some of the worst I have ever seen, due largely to the incredible amount of wheat seeds that have germinated in the fields with them – seeds that were knocked out of last year’s crops by high winds in August. These compete strongly with any other plants, meaning that the money spent on cover crop seeds has been largely wasted.
The forecast for the next couple of weeks looks pretty good, so I am hopeful we can get the rest of the wheat in soon, and then finally the beans at the end of October. And on the bright side, the rivers and ground water have been so low, this rain really is needed. Let’s just wait until November until there is too much more, please.