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A new cropping cycle, another set of new challenges

​As happens so often in farming, the start of the new cropping cycle has been dominated by unprecedented issues for all those involved in agriculture and food production: with input prices rising at an astonishing rate, we must give due recognition to the grit and determination of the amazing people of this industry which has resulted in the majority of autumn crops being safely planted and successfully growing away.

The UK’s farmers, agronomists and farm advisors are poised, ready and willing to engage in yet another season of unknowns in order to build resilience into our domestic food supply. We too are excited to work with our industry partners to uphold one of ADAMA’s key values; ‘Getting it done’.

Regional updates

With the weather across the UK becoming noticeably wetter in the last couple of weeks, the autumn drilling window will soon be drawing to a close for many growers. We therefore take another trip around the country to catch up with ADAMA’s Regional Agronomy Managers to find out how the season has progressed in their area and to learn more about how growers are adapting their tactics for the new cropping cycle.

How has the autumn drilling season been for growers in your region?

Will Nicholls, Regional Agronomy Manager (Lead), Central: Cereal drilling has largely gone to plan in the central region, with the majority of growers taking advantage of the good conditions in the first few weeks of October. The favourable weather has also allowed the majority of pre-emergence herbicides to go on within the 48-hour post-drilling window.

Jodie Littleford, Regional Agronomy Manager, North East: A lot of growers in my region have made good headway, with some taking advantage of the favourable start to the autumn to get completely drilled up. Others still have some way to go in terms of drilling workloads, but given the open autumn conditions, the opportunity to complete more drilling work is still there.

Jonny Oosthuizen, Regional Agronomy Manager, South West: Once again, the grit and determination of the amazing people in the arable sector means that a large percentage of the planned autumn drilling work has been completed successfully, with work continuing as and when weather conditions allow. If the opportunity arises, some growers are replacing small areas of planned winter cereals with winter beans in order to reduce their farm’s reliance on nitrogen inputs. This approach relies on having the bean seed available and delivered in a timely manner, which has been another pain point for farmers this autumn. Most of the season’s early sown crops of oilseed rape have managed to grow away from the dreaded threat of cabbage stem flea beetle damage, with some crops flourishing well in the warmer growing conditions.

Holly Pratt, Regional Agronomy Manager, East: Those crops of oilseed rape which have survived the onslaught of flea beetle damage in the autumn are, in general, looking really healthy, but many growers are still holding their breath until the spring to see if their crops remain viable. Where failing crops have had to be ripped up, the weather has allowed wheat to be drilled successfully. Rising nitrogen prices have made some growers (especially those that didn’t pre-purchase their fertiliser stocks) give careful consideration to adding a crop of pulses to their rotation, but in general cropping plans remain unchanged. 

How have growers in your region adapted their rotations for the forthcoming cropping cycle in response to current market forces, weed burdens, weather patterns, input prices and disease challenges?

Will: Rocketing nitrogen prices are a major cause for concern, with some growers considering the use of alternative crops such as winter beans to reduce the amount of fertiliser needed this year. That said, on farms where cereal seed has already been delivered and weather conditions have been favourable, the majority of wheat and barley crops have already been drilled. Meanwhile, early sown crops of oilseed rape continue to flourish and have largely avoided flea beetle pressure. However, later sown crops have been less fortunate, with drier conditions reducing the speed of emergence, leaving crops more vulnerable to pest damage.

Jodie: Oilseed rape crops in the North East are generally looking well, with early drilled crops boasting lush canopies which will require careful management. Where cereals have been planned in the rotation, little has changed in the drilled area. That said, the combined effect of variable availability of seed and rising nitrogen prices may see some cereal ground being put into pulses, although there is an awareness of the finite size of the pea and bean markets so cereals are still the preferred option.

Jonny: In terms of the weather, this autumn has offered many farms good opportunities to get autumn crops drilled into well prepared seedbeds and to follow up with rolling and timely spray applications. Most growers/advisors I’ve spoken to recently are coming to the end of the drilling campaign with the majority over 90% complete.

Holly: The majority of drilling has been completed in the Eastern Counties, thanks largely to the nice early autumn weather which made for ideal planting conditions. Many growers are on schedule, although delays in some seed deliveries have caused some workloads to become a little backed-up.

Have growers in your region elected to delay drilling in order to improve black-grass control?

Will: The availability of cereal seed has largely driven cereal drilling timings, with the temptation of a favourable weather window too enticing for many growers to feel comfortable enough to delay proceedings. Of course, for those growers in high risk blackgrass situations delaying drilling is still the sensible option, but, of course, the preparation of stale seedbeds comes with additional cost this season which may have a knock-on in terms of input considerations later in the season.

Jodie: It’s a mixed picture across the region, but a lot of growers who had already taken delivery of their cereal seed at the beginning of the autumn decided to take advantage of the early weather windows and now have some fairly forward crops in the ground. Others, particularly those growers with significant grassweed issues, have largely followed the advice to delay drilling and maximise the use of stale seedbeds, a strategy which will pay dividends with regards to the grassweed burden going into the spring.

Jonny: Later sowing allows the use of stale seedbeds to be maximised, as it creates a wider window of opportunity to spray off any germinating black-grass prior to drilling. This reduces the workload post-drilling, enabling growers to deal with the remaining weed burden with reduced pressure on the pre-emergence and early post-em herbicide active ingredients. In many cases this concept has worked well this autumn, albeit with the added test of logistical challenges threatening both seed and glyphosate supply.

Holly: I’ve spoken to a few growers who told me they decided to drill earlier than planned, chiefly because the tricky conditions of the past two autumns were still at the forefront of their minds. They have therefore made a conscious decision to drill early and deal with blackgrass later as they would rather take that risk as opposed to worrying about not getting a crop in the ground at all.

What impact are the escalating input prices, particularly for fertiliser, having on cropping strategies?

Will: Input costs are causing a lot of head-scratching, with growers and agronomists in deep consultation with regards to overall spend throughout the cropping year. Thankfully, grain prices have also risen and are going some way to reduce the gap, especially on those farms where inputs were purchased in advance.

Jodie: A number of growers I’ve spoken to are giving pulses some serious consideration this year, but by-and-large, cropping plans haven’t changed too drastically. Some may be thinking of scaling back fertiliser inputs amidst rising commodity prices, but the potential of many crops and the buoyant grain prices are going someway to mitigate any major cuts.

Jonny: As mentioned above, some winter cereals have been replaced by winter beans. Generally, this seems to be on a fairly minor scale, as the rising cost of fertiliser reared its head after the majority of seed and cropping commitments had already been made. The latest thinking in my region is that spring cropping plans may change quite significantly to include more pulses in order to mitigate the need for nitrogen. Growers are also likely to look to tighten expenditure elsewhere, with close attention being paid to gross margin calculations. The outcome relies heavily on the fertiliser situation improving both economically and logistically.

Holly: As mentioned above, some growers with crops still to be drilled have been considering whether to grow pulses instead of cereals. It remains to be seen what their final decision will be, but I suspect the high grain prices will play a big part in the decision-making process.

What progress are growers making in terms of pre- and post-emergence herbicide treatments, and what are the popular weed management protocols and products in your region?

Will: The good weather has enabled sprayers to travel without any issues, with the key pre-emergence actives (pendimethalin, diflufenican, flufenacet) all going on in good time after drilling. Where broad leaved weeds are an issue, Tower allows growers to introduce a fourth active (chlorotoluron) to the equation, thereby boosting efficacy and providing an alternative mode of action from a resistance management perspective.

Jodie: With no shortage of spraying windows, many crops have received pre-em applications within 48-hours of drilling which will maximise their efficacy. Those crops that didn’t receive a pre-em will hopefully be treated with an early post-emergence application. Most pre-em programmes have been based around flufenacet, pendimethalin and diflufenican, with actives being tailored to the expected weed pressures. Pendimethalin (Anthem) provides an especially good addition to the stack for grassweed control as well as a good foundation where poppies are anticipated.

Jonny: Growers have made some great progress with key flufenacet, pendimethalin and diflufenican herbicide applications. In some cases, where earlier drilling was understandably prioritised due to compressed weather windows in previous years, rolling hasn’t occurred before spraying: depending on the quality of the seedbed, this can have a detrimental impact on herbicide efficacy. In other situations, where the conditions meant the pre-emergence timing was missed altogether, growers have had to tweak their herbicide choices. ADAMA’s Tower is a very flexible option in terms of timing of application and, thanks to its inclusion of the unique mode of action, chlorotoluron, adds very useful efficacy against many weeds including broadleaved weeds and annual meadow grass.

Holly: Growers in my region have successfully managed to apply a mixture of pre- and post-emergence herbicide applications, with the majority ensuring pre-em sprays were applied within 48 hours of drilling. We did however have a week of unsettled weather recently which prevented some growers from applying a pre-emergence spray at the optimum time, with a post-em treatment the only option. Diflufenican, flufenacet and pendimethalin have formed the backbone of most programmes

What’s the current slug threat looking like in your region and how are growers tackling the problem?

Will: With the majority of cereals in my area still at the early emergence stage they are currently at their most vulnerable to seed hollowing, so slug trapping is advised to determine thresholds. With warm and wet weather in the recent forecast slugs will be more active, so growers will need to consider whether slug pellet applications are required to protect the newly emerging crops. Providing population numbers are met, Gusto IRON provides a useful ferric phosphate option with baiting points of 45m2 achieved at 5kg/ha.

Jodie: Slug pressure has been at its most significant in cereals following oilseed rape. However, where good seedbeds have been established and there’s been an opportunity to roll, fewer numbers have been observed. Later emerging crops will be more vulnerable, especially as there is more moisture in the forecast: slug traps should therefore be set and, when thresholds are met, a good quality ferric phosphate pellet such as Gusto IRON should be applied.

Jonny: Recent rainfall events are likely to cause an increase in slug populations, putting emerging seedlings under significant pressure. The threat to crops at this susceptible stage should be gauged with slug trapping – as soon as threshold populations have been reached, growers shouldn’t delay in applying 5kgs/ha of an effective ferric phosphate slug pellet such as Gusto IRON which offers long-lasting pellet integrity and an extended period of efficacy.

Holly: The ongoing spell of mild and wet weather is contributing to an increase in slug pressure, with growers being advised to carry out their own slug trapping to determine when population thresholds have been reached. When the threat reaches threshold, an application of Gusto IRON slug pellets, which have superior mould resistance and palatability, should be made.