By Dr Keith Dawson

As I write from Lviv, the snow is melting rather early, with strong crops being revealed from underneath it.

This is a worry as February and even March, can be cruel months when the harsh winds blow in from Russia. If there is no snow cover, then these chilling invaders can scorch and kill crops, even well established ones.

So far, so good, but it is very much in the balance at the moment with a 12°C variation range around freezing point. Fertiliser is now arriving at our bases ready to be applied when ground conditions allow.

Experience has taught us that on our large flat fields, fertiliser such as PK or ammonium sulphate can not only be spread on frosty ground but also in 10cm of snow. The ammonium ion will not volatilise in current temperatures and will bind onto the clay lattices, whilst the more mobile sulphate ion will benefit from leaching to about 30cm with snow melt. Our crops have well developed root systems to well below this depth, if we have a dry spell in spring it will be more crop available at depth.

Considering our target to drill 100,000ha in the autumn for the first time was met successfully, crops are in good shape. Even those late sown wheats after beet or sunflower are surprisingly good post snow melt. This melt is throughout Ukraine and significant parts of Russia.

Shrewd crop marketers should stay tuned to developments over the next few weeks. Wheat prices are starting to firm and any Black Sea issues will have a positive on wheat prices. “Squeaky bum time” for us, as Alex Ferguson once termed it.

A big worry this season, despite current low temperatures, is the onset of pest attacks, in particular in our oilseed rape.

Each of the last three milder winters, at least in Ukrainian terms, has brought increased pressure from stem weevils and a variety of different hungry caterpillars come spring.

This winter has seen an explosion in field mice in some areas which can produce significant crop damage. Judging by the large increase in the numbers of hawks in our fields, the food chain is pretty healthy.

This is partly due to milder winters, but also due to our production systems which incorporate environmentally friendly LEAF and TIBRE technologies and strategies.

Michael Gove spoke volubly on the hypothesis that AI, robots and drones would be the saviours of UK agriculture post-Brexit at the Oxford Farming Conference. This is presupposing that tariffs, delays or WTO rules allow a viable UK agriculture to continue?

Much of this AI robot blue sky thinking is more like pie in the sky at present and it would require a strong capital position and considerable testicular fortitude to invest in such a future on farm just yet, even were it possible. As an active environmentalist for several decades, I believe there will undoubtedly be benefits to this technology in time.

Currently, there is more froth than one would like and much work to be undertaken to bring it to anywhere like a field fruition. This is where institutes, such as the James Hutton and Harper Adams, are so valuable to allow systems to be tested and quantified.

Time will tell, but for Gove to claim it as a saviour for an event happening in just over a month, is like much of the Brexit thinking, wishful in the extreme. It is, sadly, very clear to see who has the largest lobbying bootprint upon Mr Gove. Straws being grasped comes to mind!

I was very disappointed to hear NFU president, Minette Batters, joining in the faux environmental clamour. She stated that UK agriculture should be carbon neutral by 2040, a mere 21 years hence. That’s arrant nonsense in the extreme, unless we abandon all livestock farming in the UK and plant our high lands and a good chunk of lowland with trees!

How does this then fit with the Failing Grayling/Brexit drive of more ‘Food from our own resources’, as promoted back in the eponymous 1975 White paper. Brexit could really be a return to the 1970s.

Is no one in Government, or indeed the opposition, capable of joined up thinking? Meanwhile, UK distributors are stockpiling chemicals, fertilisers and veterinary products, whilst the NHS stockpile medicines.

I wonder who will finally pay the extra costs involved? Actually, I’m pretty sure I do know.

Whilst on Brexit, it’s worthwhile noting that there is no such thing as an Irish border, as my Irish friends tell me it’s a British border. As I mentioned in December, one of my ex-army friends was involved in the blocking and exploding of some of the many border crossings during the Troubles.

Fortunately, the lovely old military ‘Bridge in nowhere’ (as pictured) was saved by using four times as much high explosive to divert the river instead. This is one of more than 300 crossings along the border, many in isolated areas with a time honoured tradition of ‘illicit cross border commerce’ of a variety of types.

If there was a WTO deal, with a 40% tariff difference on beef and sheep each side of the border, what could possibly go wrong? As one Irish poet recently orated ‘we could fill the Mazda with stuff from Asda.’ Yet ignorant politicians who have never visited the area, such as the honourable member for the 19th century Jacob, blithely state the border is a red herring. Black sheep more like.

Jacob really ought to know better, as his namesake narrowly avoided being sacrificed, but was replaced by a ram caught in a thicket at the last minute!

Make of that biblical metaphor what you will! I hope it isn’t UK agriculture left in the thicket to be sacrificed, better it’s Jacob’s political career.

The coal dust has now settled on the Katowice Climate summit. Yet again, there were no binding initiatives agreed by the 40,000 delegates. We can also see an increasing amount of evidence accumulating that the climate ‘12 years to save the world’ hysteria generated there is well wide of the mark.

New analysis and research has shown that, despite significant atmospheric CO2 rises in the last two decades, there are fewer hurricanes and the Arctic ice is now back up to 2012 levels.

Two recent widely publicised ocean warming papers, the generator of the energy for hurricanes, have been withdrawn due to significant calculation errors. Global mean temperatures measured by satellite have actually dropped in recent months compared to previous years.

The Katowice alarmist move to claim that +1.5°C is now the limit for safe anomalous global warming, down from 2°C at the conference, has no rigorous scientific basis.

At the same time work is showing that the CO2 forcing coefficients in the models are too high and exaggerating rate and extent of global warming in ‘predictive’ models. it is becoming acknowledged that water vapour is much more important a greenhouse effect than CO2, yet it isn’t included in the models.

Interestingly, Lord Deben, of BSE fame and chairman of the government’s Climate Change Committee is now under investigation for £600,000 payments from ‘green’ energy companies who stood to gain from his advice to ministers. All part of the climate change gravy train at taxpayers’ expense.

It was great that schoolchildren have been engaging in environmental matters, but plastic pollution is a much greater threat to their future.

Should this ‘academic’ argument concern you as a farmer? Yes it should, it is this biased thinking which is behind such threats as the new ammonia emission regulations, which say FYM must incorporated within 24 hours. How does this fit with environmentally sound min or no till establishment?

Proposed carbon taxes were dropped by the Irish government following the ‘maillot jaunes’ riots, sparked by Macron’s carbon tax proposals. Interestingly, one of the leaders of the maillot jaunes is an ex-French paratrooper who fought in the pay of Putin against Ukraine as the Russians invaded the Donbas.

Ukraine has been a laboratory for Russia in its use of cyber, social media malware and covert warfare. Whilst Russia’s own agriculture has blossomed in recent years, partly due to western sanctions, both heavy industry and agriculture in eastern Ukraine have been damaged. Can you imagine having an SOP on the planned response if one of your tractors drives over a landmine?

Large farms in the east of Ukraine have to have such protocols. Russia is now attempting to divide and conquer using these techniques more widely. Influencing Brexit is part of this covert war and there is no doubt UK agriculture will be damaged irreparably in some areas of the country.

There is a certain irony in Putin claiming that the British government should listen to the ‘will of the British people’, whilst working to destabilise a number of democracies.

Food security is not the only security we should be concerned about.