Nature Stays In Control - Agrii - Connecting Agri-science with farming

David Neale Blog

September 12, 2012

Nature Stays In Control

In farming we are constantly reminded of the ultimate controller of our businesses – yes, the weather! We can do our best with new technologies, smart kit and science – but as mere mortals, as soon as we deal with one thing, then the next challenge arrives. Last year we saw nature give us challenges with the summer drought and half the tillers in wheat plants; and then at the end of the season some critical moisture and nitrogen uptake resulting in good grain fill and (generally) some record breaking yields. This season we had great establishment, normal tiller numbers and then we started challenges with a lot more aphid damage. Next a spring drought and worst drought on record, which was promptly followed by the wettest period on record – and not just in one region, but the whole UK! Coping with spray timings, growth regulators and constant disease pressure were the main issues early-on. The final straw was double the wheat flowering time, massive yield robbing septoria in so many areas culminating in the worst ever Fusarium attack on the ear which resulted in pinched, shrivelled grains and low bushel weights. Yields are variable – but many down on average by some 25%.

Our R&D team are currently harvesting our 50,000 trial plots and sifting through a wealth of information to learn from this exceptional year. This is a big jigsaw puzzle, but we are starting to see some common threads – but the one thing we do know is that one of the main culprits is beyond our control and we will attempt to learn lessons as we go forward.

It is worth remembering that the opposite is the case in the United States, where the heat and severe drought is causing the biggest problem on record with major yield reductions in Maize and an impact also on Soya. Dare I say thank goodness in terms of keeping grain values at today’s levels – think if we were in the £100 tonne zone and not £200! BUT the impact on the livestock industry is severe and at the end of the day we must have a balanced and healthy total UK Farm Industry that helps all.

The Consequences

We see more volatility in values as world food and stock issues increase, alongside greater political sensitivity. Be careful as you consider prices with Hedge Funds holding much greater long positions in their paper contracts. As before, it would only take one Lemming to jump and off they all go with a downward effect on prices. Problems in Eastern and Central Europe with yield and drilling will keep pressures on stocks and values and that is without the on-going Chinese impact.

At home there is much anguish about screenings levels in wheat, with up to 30% coming out on-farm – but better this than take higher claim figures. With yields down, the high percentage sellers now find themselves short of product or that they have much more sold than planned. Try to screen crops of wheat and barley if possible and do make sure you know where your load is going and ask for details about fallbacks.

The consequences of all this wet weather continue with impact on seedbeds for the new crop and through next year. And right now the slugs are rampant on emerging oilseed rape! It is fair to say that OSR has done better than we thought at one point being pretty average in yield but smaller seed and lower oil content. Barley has been generally average-to-good but beware of germinations, skinning and fusarium in malting barley samples.

What price the Future… R&D Matters!!!!

As leading wheat breeder Bill Angus told me – it’s all in the genes and breeding. We have gone down a narrow breeding pathway chasing that Recommended List 1% of yield and getting to later maturity as a consequence. That cannot be the whole picture, so a wider gene pool is part of the answer and other benefits in disease resistances and weed competitiveness are just some of a range of practical benefits for the grower from greater varietal knowledge. Accepting that no two seasons are the same and therefore not making hasty decisions on one year’s results is important. As Bill said, if you start with a lower bushel weight wheat, then a season like this just aggravates the issue to extreme levels.

Our R&D Team based at Throws Farm, but with key centres in Wiltshire, Yorkshire and Scotland, have many projects underway to help our agronomists and customers with practical and meaningful work which harnesses much new science from that sector. I have no doubts that knowledge learnt about gene technology will enhance our skills in conventional plant breeding techniques and the outcomes achieved.

Down on the Farm

Here in the Cotswolds, after good early lamb prices, ewe numbers have been reduced as cost of production has come under the microscope. Hay was a disaster but luckily we salvaged two crops in one and the weather did come right just in time, so it actually looks and smells quite nice. Three local Hay Barn fires have been an issue – all combusted in the barns! Our winter Barley Cassia was good in terms of yield and quality and Spring Barley Tipple has also done very well. The wheat is another matter and very much reflects the comments above – with plenty of straw. This year Oilseed Rape comes on the farm to replace some grass areas and using early maturing and consistent Excalibur for the contractor to cut early. Across the country OSR has time to go in and maybe in some parts until 1st week October with fast developing Hybrids that will fit the bill – but check with our informed agronomists about the best choice as they are not all the same!

Borage and Clover have been good for the beehives and whilst I note that butterfly numbers are down, Bumble Bee populations have looked quite good. No shortage of Red Kites and Buzzards in the skies above, but regret no Swifts arrived with us this year – I guess staying in warmer territories and who can blame them!

Finally our Olympic Success

Are you proud of our achievements? I most certainly am! You have to be a sad cynic or pessimist not to be absorbed by the Olympics and the amazing Paralympics which followed. The constructions, ceremonies and organisation were typically British (even London Transport got it right). The emotions and achievements were amazing and most of all the personal commitment and resolve in all sports and abilities is a lesson to us all in dedication and sheer determination.

Just remember when you think life is bad – look around and you will soon see people and businesses in difficult places.

So if you got there, great and what support we all gave. And to my colleague Peter Mason (and any others) that took annual holiday to be a helper WELL DONE YOU! We are proud of you and all connected with this great summer of sporting achievements – and last night Scotland’s own Andy Murray to top the last few weeks!

Despite the weather there is still much to smile about and enjoy in this great country so let’s grit our teeth and move on.

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