July 26, 2022
Talking Agronomy (August 2022)
A far cry from last year when it was still a good 10 days off, winter barley combining is moving into top gear in mid-July, with winter OSR not far behind.
The mercifully few crops we have on gravels are clearly suffering in the heat. Those on soils with more heart, however, are ripening evenly, though pretty quickly now.
An early harvest is just what the doctor ordered for the increased oilseed rape plantings many are planning on the back of a better season and margin forecasts remaining particularly attractive for 2023.
The last few years have reinforced the overwhelming importance of getting OSR establishment right. First and foremost for us, this means drilling in the first half – if not the first week – of August, even if we are not sure we already have enough soil moisture.
Sowing in the expectation of rain is a risk. But we know it will rain at some stage in August. And if we wait for enough rain we run the even greater risk of crops emerging into the peak of flea beetle migration, not to mention poorer drilling conditions.
We want to get our crops in early so they can use whatever moisture they get as soon as they get it. That way they should be well beyond the cotyledon stage by late August. Of course, if we really don’t get enough rain, we have some decent breeder establishment schemes to help and plenty of time to replace our OSR with another cereal or beans.
With the ground dry, leaving long cereal stubbles is also more important than ever for us to preserve what moisture there is, protect the soil and emerging OSR from drying winds, and deflect early flea beetle attention. As is the least possible tillage.
Even though the no-till rulebook says chop and spread straw, we prefer to get it baled and out of the way wherever we can; not least to avoid the slug magnet of a straw mulch, and to give the best possible direct drilling conditions.
Fast-developing as well as vigorously establishing varieties are another of our OSR essentials along with the starter fertiliser that proves its worth in all our trials, and companion crops wherever feasible.
Having trialled all sorts of companions, we find there is little to beat a decent buckwheat on heavier ground. It will come through perfectly well from a simple seed mix with the rape. But trying to drill too much at a stretch runs the risk of excessive seed separation. So, we always take it steady.
A decently early harvest should take the pressure off catch and cover crop sowing this time around too. There’s a short window in August to get the best multiple species mixes established well. It is always an uphill struggle if they aren’t, and can easily be a waste of time and money. If it’s worth doing we want to do it well.
Just like the oilseed rape, we don’t wait for rain here either. Sowing depth is always a bit of a compromise with bagged mixes, in particular. Very much like OSR too, we tend to err on the shallower side; prefer to drill for the best depth control and seed-to-soil contact; and move as little soil as possible when we do.
This season is also giving us both the time and conditions to remove any compaction with carefully targeted low disturbance subsoiling. In our experience, soils just don’t get better through direct drilling. We need to work at them – most critically in correcting any drainage issues.
We have always found muck better than straw for our soil improvement but continue to be challenged by what is permissible. Despite Defra assurances, there have been no fundamental changes in the Farming Rules for Water. This makes caution our watchword, with strong, evidence-based justifications for all autumn applications – just in case the Environment Agency comes calling.