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Support soils now for pay off at harvest – Arable Farming – Conor Campbell, Ben Treadgold

With spring drilling finally underway in most areas, in the second in our Healthy Soils series, supported by Hutchinsons, Martin Rickatson asks for advice on how farmers can ensure land...

Growers with large unsown or bare areas in combinable crop fields where seed simply didn’t establish should consider carefully if patch-seeding unestablished patches is viable before committing to redrilling, says Conor Campbell, Northumberland-based agronomist with Hutchinsons.

“It’s unlikely to be possible to rectify the soil issues that caused poor germination, so it may be unviable to redrill a commercial crop in such situations.

“With winter cereals, time and investment will be better spent on promoting root growth, which will aid crop development – particularly if it comes dry – and help restructure soils, hopefully mitigating soil damage.

“Nitrogen applications are advisable as soon as travel is possible, ideally with the first split made in two doses to minimise losses.

On soft ground, frosty mornings and even half loads may help.

With root lodging the biggest cause of crops going down, our focus then is on root growth-promoting trace elements – zinc and manganese – and phosphites, applied as soon as possible while the crop remains in the foundation phase.”

With most growers rightly reluctant to work stubble land for spring crops until conditions look right.

“Now is the time to get out the spade and inspect soil structure to determine the right cultivation,” says Mr Campbell.

Soil structure

“Patience and attention to detail, rather than rushing just because a neighbour is working land, will ultimately pay off.

On rented ground it’s understandable commercial crops have to go in, but very poor fields may be better cover-cropped to improve soil structure and biology ahead of first wheat opportunities this autumn.

“A really cheap mix of a cereal and legume is better than nothing at all in taking the opportunity to actively look after land and there’s little point having big areas of spring barley to cut and nowhere to sow a first wheat, which would typically be drilled from early September onwards here.”

In North Lincolnshire, Farmacy agronomist Ben Treadgold says winter has proven the value of cover crops in terms of water infiltration through autumn and winter, while fine and overworked soils have slumped and suffered more than heavier/cloddier seedbeds, and drying spring winds have caused some land to cap with a hard crust.

He says: “While there were fewer of them than normal, fields drilled in autumn went in well, but patchy wet areas have suffered waterlogging.

“Few fields were rolled and rightly so, but if travelling is possible this will be worthwhile once cereals reach growth stage 25-30, to get them tillering and get roots into firm soil.

“Early nitrogen in relatively small doses [30-40kg initially], plus root developing trace elements – manganese, zinc – and phosphites will be essential to turn backward crops around given compromised root development.

“Late-drilled winter crops and spring crops need to get going quickly and put on biomass to capture sunlight as effectively as possible, so early nitrogen will help – preferably in nitrate form initially.

“Trace elements, phosphites and well-timed and correctly dosed plant growth regulators will all aid root development.” While few need reminding how wet land has been, he advises combinable crop growers preparing spring land to not overwork it in an attempt to dry it out.

“Go with the conditions and not the date.

Spring barley drilled in mid-March straight into stubbles has gone in very well, but ploughed heavy land will take some getting into shape before drilling, as will land overworked in autumn which has now slumped and/or capped.”

Like Mr Campbell, he notes some land will – and should – be left fallow this year if in really poor condition.

“Cover crops are essential to keep this ground healthy and repair it.

They can be established through until summer if that’s when the land is finally dry and can be worked effectively.

“Choose species with roots which help alleviate soil structure issues and that aren’t in the cropping rotation to capture sunlight’s energy and transfer it to the soil via the plant roots.”

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