By Dr Keith Dawson in the Ukraine

AS OUR crops here in the west of Ukraine shelter under a welcome blanket of up to 25cm of snow, our thoughts have turned to planning for the new season – a season which, even though it arrives late in Ukraine, will soon be upon us.

What new threats and challenges await us? Certainly, the current level of wheat stocks and the prospect of good crops emerging from the snow give little hope of a major upswing in price at this stage. Our decision to sell a significant bulk forward on an autumn upswing now looks prudent.

But, there is still a long way to go and drought can always be a factor later, but autumn rains and winter snows have replenished the soil to field capacity.

Despite dry conditions in Argentina and the US, the fundamentals currently are for a flat market, although UK farmers have experienced a benefit of currency thus far, but input prices will move the other direction – a dead Brexit cat bounce.

All these imponderables for us, without the underpinning of EU support payments. Payments which look likely to drop after discussion this coming May of the new EU budget for the coming five years.

An EU report launched last week by commission president Juncker posited drops of between 15% and 30% for the coming round after 2020. To maintain current support levels would require 37% of the budget and, as he stated: "There is no question that there will be a reduction, the fight will be around the size of the cut."

Michael Gove's performance at the Oxford Farming Conference drew cautious approval, but perhaps not cautious enough. For we know he is a slippery individual who plays to his audience overmuch, yet acts otherwise.

It must be remembered by Gove and others that the much vaunted 'sustainability' needs to be economic as well as environmental. As I've often said over the last three decades: "You can't be green, if you're in the red!"

It is timely with all this talk of 'sustainability' that this is the subject of the (SSCR) Scottish Society of Crop Research's winter meeting at the James Hutton Institute on the afternoon of March 6. Many of the issues of the future require a systems approach to examine and rigour over a number of seasons to disentangle the complex strands.

It was with great foresight that six years ago the institute set up a long term set of systems experiments at Balruddery to examine the long term effects of rotation, tillage and soil husbandry. This provided not only an excellent forum for examining some big systems questions, but has also provided a platform for many researchers to delve into the science and detail behind these questions.

The initial findings will be presented at the meeting and if last year's meeting on cover crops is anything to go by, then lively discussion will ensue. It has proved a valuable forum, like the summer's 'Cereals in Practice' event as an exchange between farmers, advisers and researchers.

Some may recall the pioneering efforts of Professor Joyce Tait, Peter Pitkin of SNH and I two decades ago with SNH's TIBRE manual. This set out, for the first time, the benefits of using new technology such as minimum tillage, low dose chemistry, low drift nozzles, adjuvants and diagnostics to not only improve yield and quality but also improve the environment. A win squared.

This was advice which was way ahead of its time and its message is still valid today and should be revisited by organisations such as LEAF and could perhaps figure in a revisiting of the support payment system.

One clear challenge this coming season will be disease control, which is becoming a greater challenge due to resistance. Sensitivity to major fungicides groups is diminishing rapidly, with major diseases such as septoria and now ramularia.

At the recent Tillage conference, in Ireland, it was shown that the last two years have delivered an eight-fold reduction in ramularia sensitivity to the SDHI fungicides, such as bixafen in Siltra Pro. Work in Scotland has shown on some sites that ramularia resistance to SDHIs is almost total.

With septoria, the situation in Ireland is a 14-fold reduction in sensitivity to triazoles. Those with good memories will recall strobilurin resistance in septoria first savaged wheat crops in Ireland before a rapid emergence in Scotland.

The complex 'in can' SDHI mixtures have performed well on disease, but no better than a good cheaper targeted mix of Proline+Bravo with an added straight SDHI, such as Imtrex, on yield. The right adjuvant such as Kantor can also help reduce costs whilst improving control.

Interesting to see metconazole in the Librax mixture working well after many years of being dismissed by some state advisers. I have always found it useful on OSR and late for fusarium in wheat in mixture with prothioconazole.

Whilst Siltra Pro maintains its top performance in yield in barley in AHDB trials, it is now essential to add good old chlorothalonil to the mix. 'Bung in the Bravo' was a strapline I coined in the mid-1980s when pioneering chlorothalonil use in Scotland whilst with BASF.

More than 30 years later, this wonderfully robust and versatile active comes to the rescue once more in both wheat and barley. After a false start last year, we will finally have the active in Ukraine, hopefully in the nick of time to delay resistance.

SDHIs are crucial tools for our record-breaking cereal crops here. No doubt after a mild wet autumn the well tillered wheat crops emerging from under the snow will be 'louping' with spores. This is partly as a result of min tillage, which can be a double edged sword in the rotation.

Whilst not yet on our market here, the stacked SDHI products will be available to Scottish growers. Are they now an expensive luxury and will it be better to 'bung in the Bravo' despite the marketing rhetoric pushing the higher cost more risky resistance option?

Care and good impartial advice will be crucial to control the cost/output balance but a big heap still wins!

So, whatever the spring brings in terms of potential and price, it is clear that the stock in trade farming tools of ingenuity, improvisation and innovation will be key. A good memory for the past is also useful with the cyclical nature of farming.

Recent research on cancer risk and processed foods might give increased opportunities for more wholesome Scottish crops such as oats, fresh vegetables and berry fruits. What is clear is that this all needs to be underpinned by good sound research and 'fact and evidence' based advice.

The Scottish government needs to bear this in mind and follow Bill Gates' lead when looking at much needed funding in our excellent Scottish research institutes, which have suffered over much from austerity and savage funding cuts in recent years in real terms.

This research underpins a dynamic agricultural industry which, in turn, underpins not only major Scottish export industries but also the health of our nation. Politicians would do well not to forget these links when they cut research funding and propose further carbon-based restrictions.