After the wettest winter on record and the driest May in England and second driest May in Wales much of our farmland is far from a pleasant green. The changing colour of our landscape highlights the challenges to farmers and growers.
Residents in Cornwall and parts of Lincolnshire will be used to seeing the welcoming yellow of the daffodil fields brightening up a dreary end to winter. For most of us the first flash of colour is the vast swathes of yellow as winter sown oilseed rape crops flower in April – but not this year. Heralded in the 70’s as the first really profitable break crop for a mainly cereal rotation the hectarage has fallen dramatically. The banning of neonicotinoids and a growing resistance to pyrethroids means the arsenal to fight cabbage stem flea beetle is becoming bare. Although some crops were established in the autumn, many were either drowned or eaten.
The wet weather led to atrocious drilling (sowing) conditions and many bags of winter cereal seeds are still in the barn. Lifting (harvesting) potatoes and sugar beet became difficult as machinery got bogged down and left insufficient time to drill later crops of wheat. The law of supply and demand ought to indicate a lighter harvest will lead to higher prices, but wheat is traded on a global market. It can cost less to transport a tonne of wheat by boat from the East Coast of America to Liverpool than by lorry from the Midlands. The amount of land not cropped is now becoming visible as the ground is being cultivated – far too many brown fields for this time of year.
Have you noticed some fields of blue? This is linseed, also known as flax; a sign of desperation as it can be drilled later in April and acts as a break-crop. An interesting crop which flowers over a period of 15 to 25 days, with a 24-hour flower. New buds open each morning with the petals being shed by mid-day. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, with May’s rainfall at only 17% of average levels, low-yielding spring sown crops will most likely incur a financial loss and with a later harvest could impact on next year’s profitability too.
Our not so green and pleasant land raises many challenges for the arable sector, restoring soil structure, finding alternative break crops, getting back into a ‘normal’ rotation and a much reduced cashflow. It’s a long time to next harvest.
By Ian Bell, Head of Farming & Rural Engagement
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