Penny wise, pound foolish

Back in 2001 I was ‘working’ on a farm in South Africa, which incidentally has an incredible guest house which you really need to visit if you’re near Cape Town. One day the farmer, Julian, had been given a good deal on diesel, but it meant no delivery until the following week. That seemed like a great plan until there was some critical work that needed doing, but no fuel to run the tractors. That was the first time I can remember hearing the phrase – muttered self-deprecatingly – penny wise, pound foolish. And from someone who didn’t even use pounds or pence.


This headland on a bean field is full of grass. It was there before we drilled, and didn’t go anywhere. The right hand photo is a few metres away from the other two, and shows what could have been

It’s a saying that has been on my mind recently, as I’ve come a bit unstuck this spring in an attempt to save the pennies. For over a year now, we’ve been waiting until after a field was drilled to spray off the weeds in it. This saves a pass with the sprayer, at a cost of perhaps £10/ha. This worked great in Autumn 2014 as an experiment, and for the whole of 2015. Then spring 2016 came, and the conditions were…suboptimal. We drilled when it was really wetter than ideal, and as a result a lot of the weeds were covered with pieces of mud pulled up by the machine’s wheels. This shielded them from the glyphosate we tried to kill them with, and they grew with gusto (when the weather warmed up). The biggest problems are in the beans, see photo above, and the peas, see photo below. Now we will have to go back a second time with more herbicides that would not have otherwise been needed, costing maybe £30-50/ha more. Penny wise, pound foolish indeed. Lesson learnt? When conditions are not looking good, make sure to spray pre-drilling.


A very…diverse…set of plants in some bits of a pea field. Let’s call it a companion crop trial

But I’m not finished. When I went around to take these photos, it occurred to me that, unfortunately, there are a few other things that have happened this spring which fit into this blog. Like I mentioned, it was a wet spring, and on our heaviest, most difficult, field we are growing spring barley. At the beginning of April the weather forecast looked terrible, and not wanting to have to wait until May to get it planted, we cracked on. The drill left horrible slots, and the only thing to do was to follow with a set of discs. It never looked pretty, but actually it has turned out great.

After drilling, after the discs, after a month. Happy days

After drilling, after the discs, after a month (and a set of rolls). Happy days

The barley has turned out great, I’m very glad we did what we did. This field is always difficult with slugs, but they weren’t too bad. Now contrast that with the field we drilled immediately before – same day, slightly lighter soil:

Oh dear

Oh dear

Now this did not look too hot after drilling either, but there were not really any open slots, so I didn’t worry about it. Nor did we roll it, as I think (backed up by trying it out in previous years) that with our drill in no-till, rolling doesn’t do much. Well, it seems that was a big mistake, and all for the sake of a few £/ha. Slugs have fairly well ravaged about a third of the field, and the other two thirds looks mediocre at best. I’m sure that some combination of discs and rolls after the drill would have sorted the problem out, as you can see in this photo:

This is where the drill overlapped on a headland. the double-drilled part seems to have had much less slug damage

This is where the drill overlapped on a headland. the double-drilled part seems to have had much less slug damage

I’m not sure exactly which effect has stopped the slugs, but whatever it was will have been a lot cheaper than the mess we have now. I feel there are several lessons to be learnt here. If conditions are bad and we’re leaving clods everywhere, then rolling may be a good idea. Perhaps more importantly, we need to start checking for slugs before drilling and getting on top of the problem. We have been lucky not to be majorly afflicted by them in the past, and as a result we’re a bit lax. No more.

Finally, let’s talk about aphids. We have a new agronomist this year, working on a portion of the farm. He doesn’t like insecticides, and neither do I. I’ve already written a bit about some of his fields, where I’m currently pretty pleased with the results. None of his crops, with the exception of some peas this spring, have had any insecticides at all. We talked it through last autumn, and decided to take the risk. Then the warmest winter on record happened, our daffodils bloomed in January, and the aphids kept on flying. This is bad for us, as aphids carry a disease called BYDV, and the more they fly, the more it spreads.

BYDV in barley

BYDV in barley, back in April

So now we do indeed have some BYDV, particularly in a field of barley. Next door is an identical field, same variety (untreated seed), same drilling date, different agronomist. It had a dose of insecticide in November, and there are no patches of BYDV (OK, there are two that I’ve seen, but that’s a few square meters in 220,000). It’s clear that the spray did the trick. Missing out insecticides saves only a small amount of money, and I’ve always thought it only takes one bad year to cancel out ten where they weren’t needed. Perhaps that was this year? Overall though, I’m still not unhappy with the decision. It’s part of a long term strategy, and so we’ll take the long term view. As someone I know likes to say, don’t farm last year.