Yesterday we lost the use of neonicotinoid insecticides for almost all agricultural uses in the EU. It’s been coming for quite some time, looking more and more likely since their use as a seed treatment for flowering plants was banned back in 2014. This had an immediate effect on oilseed rape growers, almost all of whom (ourselves included) used this seed treatment on just about all of our crops. The main pest we all wanted to control was Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle, a little shit of an insect which eats the small plants in the autumn, and then lays its eggs in the stem. This means that if the plant isn’t finished by September, the larvae can hatch and complete the job in the spring.

Some areas of the country are more heavily affected than others – we happen to live in one of the hot spots. The autumns of 2015 and 2016 were particularly bad for CSFB, and so to make up for the loss of neonics, everyone went around spraying foliar insecticides to try and control the problem. Now, I have written about this sort of stuff before, and I don’t intend to rehash it at the moment, but generally my feeling is that these foliar sprays are fairly useless. We don’t use them any more. What has made me write this again is hearing so many farmers taking to the internet now that neonics have been banned on all crops, not just flowering ones. That means no more Deter seed dressing for cereals, which contained a neonic designed to control aphids (which can spread a disease known as BYDV). The farmers’ refrain is predictable: “now we can’t use neonics, we will use loads more harmful foliar sprays, which aren’t targeted, so will kill everything. And our yields will suffer as we get more BYDV”.

This is almost identical to what we heard in 2014: We’ll have to use more insecticide. Yields will suffer. No one will grow OSR any more. Well, that was 4 years ago, what has happened? Let’s take a look.

Stats on how many hectares of each crop, and what they yield, is collected and published each year by DEFRA. They are freely available, and for the last few years ADAS & the AHDB have produced a nice report with all the numbers in it as well. So, I spent a little bit of time collating, and here are the results. Firstly, let’s examine the claim that fewer people would grow OSR after the ban.

Total area of OSR grown in the UK

Total area of OSR grown in the UK

That actually looks like it’s probably true. The red line shows when the ban came into effect, and 2017’s area is some 26% lower than the peak in 2012. Next, let’s look at yields.

Average OSR yield (t/ha)

Average OSR yield (t/ha)

Hmmm, OK, this one is a bit different. Far from having a negative effect, the yield in the year following the ban was higher than the year before, as was 2017. I don’t think anyone would claim the yields are consistently going to be higher, but saying they fell off a cliff is clearly wrong. They look about the same to me. [I should also mention that Thriplow Farm’s yields probably knocked about 0.5t/ha off the national average in 2016 & 2017].

Next we can move on to more detailed data. Every two years FERA carry out a pesticide survey, which shows which pesticides were used on which crops, and how often. This is interesting stuff, and it allows me to see if the prophecies from 2014 have come true. Firstly, let’s take a look at the amount of foliar insecticides used on OSR since 2012.

Average number of foliar insecticide applications on OSR per season

Average number of foliar insecticide applications on OSR per season

Here we can see that immediately after than ban, the number of foliar insecticide applications per crop did indeed go up. However, it was still lower than in 2012, when neonics were widely used. Hmmm, maybe there is still more insecticide used per tonne of OSR produced?

Total grams of foliar insecticide used per tonne of OSR produced

Total grams of foliar insecticide used per tonne of OSR produced

Uh oh! This is a killer. Again, the number has gone up a little bit since the ban was introduced, but it is still lower than in 2012.

Let’s think about this again now we see the data. Area grown has gone down. Yield has stayed similar. Foliar insecticide applications have stayed similar, as has the total amount of foliar insecticide per tonne of OSR. But, and this is critical, remember that in that time we have stopped used neonics. Looking back on it, how can anyone really say this was a bad thing? We have reduced our spend on growing the crop, reduced the amount of insecticide going into our soils, and maintained yields.

Farming has a terrible, terrible history of crying wolf. Will the same happen again when everyone stops using the other neonics next year? 100% guaranteed there will be a mega-whinge, but odds are the apocalypse, once again, will be avoided. We’ll just have to wait another 5 years to see the data.

[Below is the data in spreadsheet format]5


Thinking about oilseed rape – and neonics

Last week we finished harvesting our rapeseed, including the field that was half neonic and half not – it was discussed in some detail here. It was done in two bites, separated by 4 days, as one half was a lot riper than the other. The overall yield was a poor 2.56t/ha, but this was largely down to about a quarter of the field having been severely pigeon damaged in the cold spring. Anyway, here’s the yield map,

Dark red (showing where the pigeons did their worst) is less than 2t/ha, with yields increasing up to around 4t/ha with the light yellow and very small bit of green. This yield map has been calibrated with weighbridge results, so should be pretty accurate

I started to write this post analytically, but it was messy, waffly, and almost entirely without merit. So I’m going to cut it much shorter.

The neonic treated side of the field looks to have yielded more than the untreated – it is the right half as shown above divided by the thin blue line. There are several differences between the two sides of the field

  • Seed rate – higher in the treated section
  • Drilling date – later in the treated section
  • Seed treatment – neonic in the treated section (amazing)

My personal feeling is that it is the drilling date which has caused the yield effect, as we generally found here (as did other farmers anecdotally) that the later a field was drilled/harvested, the better it has yielded. I’d put this down to the weather in the spring, and later crops getting more sunshine at the important times.

However…I can not, and will not, say for sure that’s what has done it. It is very frustrating to have these other two differences now. I believe there are scientific studies into the yield effects of neonic treatments which will be published soon.

The other interesting thing that come up this year is what happens when you look at the other field that I measured in the original neonic post back at the start of the year. It too yielded a similar amount, 2.6t/ha. It too had very bad pigeon damage.

Dark red (showing where the pigeons did their worst) is less than 2t/ha, with yields increasing up to around 4t/ha with the light yellow and very small bit of green. This yield map has been calibrated with weighbridge results, so should be pretty accurate

The scale here is the same – dark red is less than 2t/ha, with yields increasing up to around 4t/ha with the light yellow and then up to over 6t/ha on the blue. White was so bad it was not even harvested.

The area I tested, and found to have low levels of CSFB (cabbage stem flea beetle) larvae (3.6 and 1.5 larvae per plant), was actually one of the worst yielding areas of the field. This was the bottom left corner, where the yields were around 2-2.5t/ha. There does not seem to be any difference between the areas that were sprayed once, or twice, with a pyrethroid insecticide.

What I find amazing about this map though is how it totally confounds what I felt about the year. I thought the lacklustre yields were all down to the weather conditions, but in this field we have significant areas yielding over 6t/ha. Obviously I was wrong, and the weather was OK if everything else worked too.

Do I think it was CSFB? No. Here’s why – take a look at this photo from Google Maps.

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 11.41.19

This photo was taken a couple of years before we started farming here, when this field was split in two. It is very, very clear that the difference in yield between the two old fields is HUGE. The bottom field was actually rapeseed the year before we took it over, in harvest 2011. So it has had a 4 year break from OSR – but still something is causing it to yield much lower than the top field which has had a longer (but unknown) break.

I do not personally believe that CSFB, or any other insect, respects historic field boundaries: the answer must lay in the soil. Is it disease? Nutrients? Structure? I don’t know. What I do know is that without this demonstration, I would be blaming weather, when that’s clearly not (entirely) the case. It is a cautionary tale to not single out any particular factor without clear evidence. I could have quite easily blamed CSFB, as many people are this year. To be clear though, we have one field with very low larvae numbers, some of which is yielding 2t/ha, and some 6t/ha. On the other hand we also have a field where neonic dressed seed yielded more than undressed.

So who the *&$% knows? Not me.

[In case you were wondering, this is still the un-waffly version]

Neonics, pyrethroids, rapeseed, guesses and dodgy stats

Standby for some unscientific science. Here’s a story about two fields of oilseed rape on our farm.

Field 1

Here’s the deets. 18ha field, sown with Campus OSR. Half of it was drilled with Hypro Duet seed dressing, which is a fungicide. The other half had Cruiser dressing, which is a neonicotinoid [neonic] insecticide – and it was drilled roughly a week later. As fans of Countryfile will know, neonic seed dressings are currently banned on oilseed rape…apart from some small parts of the country, one of which happens to be where we farm. Apart from the neonic dressed seeds, the field has had no other insecticides applied at all. Oh, and it had a companion crop of buckwheat, lentils & fenugreek.


Neonic on left, no insecticide on right

I went out last week to count how many flea beetle larvae there were living in the plants right now. I took 10 plants from each treatment, all samples were done within about a 30m circle. I then split open all the petioles where I could see a brown lesion, and counted the larvae. Sometimes I couldn’t find one when it definitely looked as if I should have; maybe I squashed them or was just blind. But hopefully my errors were consistent.

I found an average of 10.5 larvae/plant in the non-neonic area, compared to 8.6 in the treated. Experiments from AHDB showed that having 5 larvae/plant in the autumn did not have an effect on yield, but obviously both of my results are higher than that. On first glance it would appear the neonics have had a positive effect on keeping the flea beetle infestation down.

The neonic treated plants (left) are significantly smaller than the untreated (right)

The neonic treated plants (left) are significantly smaller than the untreated (right)

But unfortunately it was not as simple as that. The treated area was drilled around a week later, and with a higher seedrate. This meant that the plants were significantly smaller than in the untreated bit. So I walked out again and did a plant population count – 33 vs 58 plants/m2. Multiply this number by the larvae counts, and we see that there are actually more larvae in the neonic area – 345 vs 503 larvae/m2. And finally… I counted how many petioles each plant had, and then divided the larvae count by that number. The result was almost identical 1.18 vs 1.19 larvae/petiole.

So the neonic area “won” the first test, “lost” the second, and “drew” the third. What does it mean? I’ve no idea! As always, harvest will tell the only story that actually matters.

[UPDATE: Since writing this I was worrying about a couple of possibilities, so I have investigated them further. First of all, I wondered if perhaps I had taken the samples from too close; maybe some beetles had leaked over from the non-neonic side. So to test this I went over to the other side of the field, as far away as possible, and checked again. I did not do a full “scientific” sample set, but there were no fewer larvae than the first location.

Secondly I thought maybe the neonic seed treatment was irrelevant, and the higher infestation was down to just the lack of foliar sprays. Luckily I could test this too, as we have a third field that was drilled entirely with neonic seed, but had no insecticide sprays at all. Again I did an informal count and the numbers were much lower, maybe 4-5 per plant. So even with no sprays it is possible to be below the yield reduction threshold.]

Field 2

45ha field, all drilled at the same time with Picto and a companion crop of vetch, buckwheat and lentils. The seed dressing was Hypro Duet – i.e. not an insecticide.

Does it matter what is what? There's no visible difference

Does it matter what is what? There’s no visible difference. Although perhaps more interestingly the combine wheelings are fairly obvious

In September there was some flea beetle pressure, so we were given a recommendation to spray with a pyrethroid. Personally I was less than convinced, having done similar things last year – so we left 25% of the field un-sprayed. A month or so later we had another recommendation for pyrethroids again, this time for stem weevil. The whole field was treated.

I took all the same measurements as in the first field. There were more larvae in the once treated area compared to the bit sprayed twice – 3.6 vs 1.5. However, both are still below the threshold of yield reduction. Plant populations were odd; 81 vs 63/m2. It didn’t look different to the eye, but the stats never lie (errr…). This means we had more flea beetles in total in the once treated bit, 293 vs 94 larvae/m2. The plants were of pretty similar size, 7.6 vs 6.8 petioles/plant, which in turn means double the number of larvae/petiole in the once area.


I think drawing conclusions is easier here, as there’s a much closer and more scientific comparison. It seems clear that the first application of pyrethroids had some effect on reducing the number of flea beetles. That shouldn’t be surprising, but as the plants seem healthy and the larval numbers are below yield affecting thresholds I’m happy with the decision not to spray. In fact I only wish I had left some of that part of the field un-treated on the second application as well.

I think the difference between the two fields is interesting. The neonic treated field has a much higher burden of flea beetle larvae than the untreated one, but they are a few miles apart, using different varieties and different companion crops. The only certainly at this point is that neonics are most definitely not a guaranteed way to keep flea beetle at bay. I’ve been saying for a while now that if we grow rapeseed next year it will not be treated with neonics, even if they are permitted. I haven’t seen a reason to change that opinion yet.