View from the East by Dr Keith Dawson

I have travelled the breadth of Europe in the last week – from sunny Seville in the south-west, where the orange harvest is in full swing, to the far east of Europe, Ukraine.

From the warm scents of orange trees and sun dappled olive groves with wheat and barley in full ear, to late wheats struggling to tiller and barley not even at GS 30. The commonality was unusually low soil moisture in both contrasting environments. The rain has not fallen on the plain in either Spain, or Ukraine.

The rain will come too late for the ripening Spanish awned wheat, but it is too early to say in Ukraine. As we drove across our large farmed area with our agronomy team in the west of Ukraine, it was difficult to see the vehicle in front for the thick plumes of dust raised by the journey.

In our 13 years of farming here I have never seen streams, ponds and ditches with such low water levels at this time of year. We had the barest minimum of snow cover this winter to cover the crops and this followed a drier than average autumn.

This has meant lower than usual crop losses and re-drilling this spring, apart from mice and clubroot. March was cool, but without the biting searing cold winds that can turn green crops to brown overnight. Temperatures were low and so growth has been less than dynamic, crops have not moved on much in either biomass or developmental stage.

Oilseed rape has yet to move away from the rosette and low temperatures have held pests in check, particularly on the later, higher Ternopil plateau where our best soils lie.Watch this space on grain prospects!

The dry spell has allowed spring operations to flow smoothly and without the usual break for the customary frustrating wet week. Whilst this is pleasing, it means there has been no top up of the soil moisture we now crave.

We have had a record early start to the spring drilling campaign and some blocks have finished sugar beet already, which is unprecedented. Potato planting is well underway and soils are working up well despite dry conditions – no stone separating needed here!

Three 'warm' winters in a row have increased insect pest numbers as well as mice. Our yellow OSR insect traps have been starting to pick up stem weevils in the last 10 days, though large daily temperature variations have kept both crops and pests in check.

We had significant losses with weevil five years ago, so no chances are now taken, especially in light of the mild winter. We find pest thresholds useful, but a rather blunt instrument.

OSR is a valuable commodity this year and we have no buffering state support. With 25,000ha of oilseed rape, even small losses or cost increases hit the bottom line hard. The dry cool conditions have also reduced disease pressure and we've taken the decision to trim our tebuconazole at stem extension in our OSR by 50g/ha, this small change will save us nearly €100k.

We will need all the savings we can muster as our cap-ex for machinery is more than $50m this season and we have just taken a delivery of a large chunk of this machinery as you can see from the pictures. We work 12-hour shifts, with two operators giving us 24-hour output, with as little downtime as possible.

Without the use of our GPS systems it would be impossible to achieve these outputs, which flex cap-ex considerably. Our new Claas combines will arrive later in the season and we are pleased with the output and effectiveness of both our Danfoil and Berthoud 36m sprayers.

We are also embarking on a significant research programme using Hummingbird drone technology this season. This is aimed at highlighting areas where we can better target inputs such as N and desiccant in OSR, as well as row crop management in beet and potatoes.

I have learnt over almost four decades of farming that healthy scepticism is the most useful tool when evaluating new technology. Drones will undoubtedly prove highly useful in farming, but there is overmuch sales froth in the sector so far.

I am not yet convinced, but we will give the technology a rigorous evaluation this season. Will it add value, or will we be busy fools? Time will tell.

One piece of new technology we are desperate to get our hands on is Corteva's new potato blight fungicide, Zorvec. I recall seeing it in Ruaridh Bain's excellent SRUC Ayrshire trials almost a decade ago. There, in high blight pressure, you didn't need a trial plot plan to pick out where Du Pont's new active was sprayed. It was night and day.

With our susceptible Lady Claire for crisping, it will be a hugely welcome addition to our blight armoury. A shame it has taken so long to register that the process has outlasted the originator's company name! The King is dead, long live the King.

The dry conditions have led to less breakdown of both crop and herbicide residues. The residue from BASFs herbicide resistant 'imi' technology is holding back some of our oilseed rape crops. This is with sunflower herbicide residues from more than 16 months ago on some of our newly acquired land, despite ploughing.

As can be seen from the photograph, maize crop residues in some new fields were poorly incorporated and are breaking down more slowly than usual. This will cause problems for residual pre-em herbicides in the sunflower we hope to drill soon in these fields. The scale of our business means even a small error or success is compounded to a big number on the profit line.

Meanwhile, our spring drilling campaign of 100,000 ha is going well and spring wheat is emerging well, but rain for sugar beet emergence and soil residual herbicides is needed soon.

The cool dry conditions have led to much thicker leaf wax on both crops and weed leaves, so we will be using a bespoke adjuvant to improve penetration and uptake this spring. It's highly cost effective when trimming rates to the bone to save costs.

Well I can give myself a pat on the back that I have got thus far in writing this column without use of the dreaded 'B' word! These are strange times indeed and in Ukraine – after the preliminary elections – we have a comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky, who actually plays the president in a TV series, versus the real life President Poroshenko.

At the time of writing, they are likely to face off in a televised debate in the Olympic stadium in Kiev, on April 19, two days before elections. This week, both candidates subjected themselves to taking of blood and hair samples on national television to test for drugs and alcohol to qualify for the debate!

Like in the UK, there is a clear demographic and regional preference shown for both candidates, creating division. The west prefer the reigning champion, whilst the east wish for the comic of change, who has put forward no policies and whose funding is unclear. Sound familiar?

As we've seen with both Brexit and Trump, one needs to be careful about what one wishes for in wanting change. It must now be clear to the most intransigent of farming 'Leave' voters that Brexit will have devastating effects on farming, rural communities and even landscape, and not only in the UK.

I retain my long held hope that we will finally remain or BRINO at worst, but what a divisive and damaging pantomime we continue to witness.

Democracy may well be the worst possible system, apart from everything else that has ever been tried, but what division, financial and reputational damage has been caused thus far with more to follow.

It makes both 'Yes Minister' and 'In the thick of it' look like real-life documentaries. Of course, it is entirely possible that we have our own General Election before long. Nor is it impossible that the UK goes one better than Ukraine and we'll have two clowns facing off come that day!