Arable Farming April 2019

SAS result

The recent cold weather appears to have slowed crops down significantly, as winter barley crops are just putting out final leaf two and winter wheat crops are still largely at final leaf four, suggesting that despite the early start to the season, T1 applications will probably be around average, if not a little late where crops went in late. This should mean a three-week gap between T1 and T2, reducing the need to consider an interim application. Having said that, disease pressure appears to be particularly low so far this season anyway, which is pleasing.

The spring barley was all drilled up in good time this spring, unlike last year, having waited as long as we dared for any final blackgrass plants to emerge before biting the bullet on the 23rd March. It all came through very quickly, thanks to warming soils and a decent drop of rain shortly afterwards. With this forecast, I decided to go with a pre-em this year, which we have typically opted against, as it has been drilled much later and soils have been rapidly drying. The first dose of nitrogen was also applied just ahead of the rain, so will have done some good to wash it into the soil.

However, with very little rainfall generally this spring, although winter cereals do not look in a bad way yet, it is clear that all the nitrogen applied has not yet made it into the crop. This is especially the case on the light soils, which have dropped tillers as a result. I am not too concerned about these yet, but the winter beans on light land are probably suffering the most at the moment.

We recently had some fields sampled for ‘Soil Health’ which was funded by Anglian Water as part of the Slug it Out campaign. The idea is to look at certain factors contributing to soil health amongst different farms in the catchment and benchmark them. We chose some of the perceived ‘good’ and ‘bad’ performing fields across the different farms to see what this showed. A number of factors were tested, including the usual soil texture, pH, nutrition and organic matter, but the test also included a C:N ratio and a CO2 burst, to look at the microbial levels and activity in the soil. The results take all these factors into account to produce a score out of 100.

Our results varied from 65 at the lowest to 90 at the highest. The microbial activity clearly has a high weighting when producing this score, as this was the biggest difference between the two results, albeit that the lowest field still had a good CO2 burst result. There was also a range in organic matter levels between them, but the lower field still had a reading of 4%, so it cannot be as simple as just looking to build organic matter.

So, like a lot of things in agriculture, it is all very well looking at results, but understanding what to do with them, and how to interpret them is key. Clearly there is something going on here, as separate to this I have carried out a study ranking all fields for yield over the last seven years. The field with the highest Soil Assessment Score was ranked for normalised average yield. The field that had the lowest score came in the bottom 5% of fields.

This information is really useful, but unlocking what these clues are telling me may prove to be a real challenge.

SAS result