Field Margins by Rachel Young

The Black Isle has enjoyed almost a solid month of good weather, with the second half of April and first half of May bringing sunshine and generally dry weather, interspersed with just the right amount of showers to get everything growing.

We started our spring barley drilling campaign on April 1 and finished it on April 25, so we were probably not that much later in finishing than normal, despite being a week to 10 days late in starting.

On the malting front, we’ve drilled Concerto and Laureate, and seed wise we’ve got Concerto, Sassy, Laureate and Chronicle. As previously mentioned, both KWS Sassy and Laureate are new to us as last year we increased our Sienna area, after finding it did well for us in 2016. However, we've had to drop it due to issues with splitting last harvest – which was also experienced by many other growers in our area.

The last load of seed Sienna went off in bulk at the end of March and we were able to calculate that it averaged 8.27 tonnes/ha (3.35 tonnes/acre). So, it was unfortunate that this variety was able to yield well, but it lacked consistency in relation to quality, which must be considered with our unpredictable weather patterns.

All our barleys have now received first applications of nitrogen and potash, and we applied pre-em herbicide to approximately the last 80 ha drilled.

Looking at winter crops, winter wheats look to be around three weeks behind where they were last year and will potentially impact on both yield and harvest date.

Our previously mentioned striped field of wheat doesn’t look like it will be winning any prizes this year, aside from ‘best worst striped field of wheat’. The striping was down to issues with our new dribble bars getting choked, but after dad taking them all apart and putting them back together (a total of 900 screws on and off) – how many more times is he going to tell us? – he found multiple large pieces of a black rubber glove that had been sucked into quite a few of them, causing the blockages.

Our own Detective Poirot is currently investigating the source of this glove and we think it must have been in our liquid fertiliser tank, though definitely didn’t originate from us, as Poirot himself is far too tight to buy that type of gloves.

All wheats had their T0 around three weeks ago and, hopefully, we will get on in the next few days with the T1. Our oilseed rape is looking really good at the moment and seems to have benefitted from avoiding any snow fall during ‘The Beast from the East’.

It’s currently in full flower and had its last nitrogen application a fortnight ago, plus a fungicide and trace elements application three weeks ago.

Between finishing drilling barley and moving onto carrot drilling, which is still ongoing, we direct drilled our 20ha of AECS green manure. I opted for a £32.5/ha mix of vetch, phacelia and clover as I didn’t want anything that might carry over clubroot, but wanted to include something with nitrogen fixing ability.

I also didn’t want to spend a huge amount of money on the seed, as considering you aren’t allowed to apply any sprays or fertilisers to the field pre-drilling, or during the growing season, I’m unsure of how well it is going to compete with the weeds.

It will be interesting to see if it is successful this year, which might encourage us to increase spending on it next year, as we are tied into the scheme for five years.

After March 1, 2019, we can plough it down, or graze it, and then plough it down, so if anything does grow and survives the winter, then it might be something for the ewes to eat before lambing.

We split a 4ha field and put half of it in into green manure and half in spring barley and next year will put it all back into spring barley to see if the yield is in anyway improved on the green manure side in the years to come.

Personally, I'm all for looking after soils and trying to improve their condition through whatever means possible. In this case, though, I think the clue is in the name and that green manure is, though well intentioned with a sensible underpinning, poorly thought out and lacks solid scientific backing. But, I’ll happily be proven wrong!

I also work part-time as a physiotherapist and I know in health care any new treatment or management options would not be used or included in official guidelines until rigorous testing and systematic reviews had been completed on their effectiveness.

Therefore, it does worry me that some of the new environmental schemes and things the government are looking at for ‘Green Brexit’ have only anecdotal evidence and lack the backing of cold, hard facts.

The future of UK agriculture is currently partially in the hands of the policy makers and we need to make sure they hear our voices to ensure productive progressive sustainable agriculture, and the biodiversity and countryside improvements it helps to provide, are encouraged and rewarded. And also that sacrificing good, productive land and time on non-evidence-based schemes is not.

* Rachel farms at her family’s 350ha Ballicherry Farm, in the Black Isle, with her parents, Brian and Caroline Matheson. It is mainly arable, growing spring barley, wheat and oilseed rape, though they also have 150 Texel cross ewes, and overwinter 100 head of cattle.