Cereal growers’ climate

Delegates at the CAT conference

Delegates at the CAT conference - Credit: Archant

THE current growing season is the third consecutive period when weather has had a major impact on cereal production, delegates at a conference in Haverhill heard on Tuesday.

Speaker CAT technical director Richard Fenwick

Speaker CAT technical director Richard Fenwick - Credit: Archant

Coping strategies for a climate where ‘abnormal’ weather becomes ‘normal’ was a running theme at this year’s Cambridge Arable Technologies’ winter conference.

Speaker Charlotte Garbutt of the HGCA

Speaker Charlotte Garbutt of the HGCA - Credit: Archant

Speakers including Charlotte Garbutt, senior analyst at the Home Grown Cereals Authority considered the practical and financial implications of the challenge growers faced.

She pointed out that feed grain stocks are too low to fill the void in 2012/13 and so demand has to be “rationed”, via higher prices.

South American and Australian wheat harvest have not provided additional supplies and the market is dependent on US wheat to supply export demand, she said.

In the short term, high prices favour additional planting but once again in the UK the weather has hindered autumn and winter cultivation on many farms. Early indications are that the area down to wheat is 10% lower than last year. However, much of Europe has fared better so far.

Late drilling may also lead to lower yields she accepted, currently forecast at around one tonne per hectare lower than over the last two seasons. Imports are likely to increase, as may domestic demand. Only 3% of last season’s grain met full milling specifications.

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Similar pressures apply to the oilseeds sector, according to Sidra Shaheen, also of the HGCA. Oilseed supplies are tight while demand remains firm. This situation has been compounded by a disappointing US soyabean crop, she explained.

With price trends firm, in both the short and medium term, farmers can be rewarded for overcoming the uncertainties of the weather, both here and abroad. Against this background CAT Technical Director Richard Fenwick reviewed the results of last season’s trials.

With less than half the average rainfall early in the growing period and only 80% of average sunshine through the later growing and ripening period, cereal crops were put under extreme stress.

As a result many staple varieties succumbed to the high disease pressure, although a few coped much better.

Richard Fenwick said: “Early varieties gave the best results, irrespective of the husbandry regime. The Hybrid Wheat, Hystar, was a clear leader in all the trials, whether early drilled, late drilled, high or lower input. It was followed by the conventional variety Gallant, which also performed consistently throughout the trials.

“Higher inputs increased average specific weights overall (1.9 kg/hl) and gave significant benefits for varieties Hystar, Santiago and Invicta. In a year when specific weights were generally very poor this made a real difference to the value of the crop.”

CAT also carried out a series of trials on Oilseed Rape varieties. Using a range of UK data Richard considered Troy, a short, semi-dwarf variety with high gross output, is worth trying, as is Quartz. DK Imagine CL could be useful in controlling troublesome weeds in some rotations, he suggested.

Difficult seasons present farmers with a dilemma over crop nutrition, the object of several CAT trials. Last season the milling variety Gallant was grown using four rates of sulphur.

The highest yields were achieved when a high rate (45 kg/ha) was used at an early growth stage but a slightly higher protein content was obtained when the crop received three small (5kg/ha) treatments spread over the growth cycle. Further sulphur trials are being conducted during the current season.

Micronutrient levels also have an important impact on yields and on quality and each of the key micronutrients must be maintained if crops are to reach their full potential.

As Roy Holden of Yara UK explained to delegates, the important micronutrients are manganese, copper and zinc. Factors affecting manganese uptake include high soil pH, high levels of organic matter, poorly consolidated seedbeds and cold, wet conditions.

Analysis of more than 100,000 soil samples from across the UK indicates that 59% of soils are deficient and that at a pH of 6.5 or above 95% of arable land is potentially susceptible to manganese deficiency.

Copper is important in many aspects of plant growth and development, from photosynthesis to pollen formation and disease resistance. Thin soils over chalk, sandy soils and reclaimed heathland are all prone to copper deficiency and remedial action may be needed.

Zinc is essential to normal crop development and growth but its uptake can be restricted in soils receiving high applications of fertiliser in the form of phosphorus. Zinc utilisation is also hampered by cold, wet weather. Zinc deficiency seems to be growing more quickly than for other micronutrients, especially in East Anglia, according to Roy Holden:

“It is important that problems are identified through complete soil analysis. Leaf analysis, visual assessment, experience of the land and understanding high risk situations will also help in selecting the right amount of appropriate nutrients at the optimum time. It’s all about attention to detail,” he said.