THOUSANDS of acres have been left undrilled across the North due to the unusually high rainfall levels this autumn and it seems that for some, spring cropping may be the only option.

The season follows favourable harvest results on most farms.

Sam Patchett of Agrii said most growers have managed to sow at least part of their acreage, with the more free-draining soils on the Yorkshire Wolds faring best in his region. However, a percentage of those crops which had been drilled may have to be abandoned.

“By the third week in September it was almost too dry for planting and many farmers were waiting for a slight increase in soil moisture,” said Mr Patchett.

“When it did start to rain it did not stop and we had exceptionally high levels in the weeks that followed.”

Some of the most successful autumn plantings were carried out on farms with a policy of direct drilling, he observed.

“Direct drilling tends to produce soils that are more resilient and to some extent protected against extremes of weather. This is due to the higher levels of organic matter and improvement in soil structure. It will take a minimum of four years before the full benefits can be realised.”

He suggested that spring oats and barley could be a useful choice for problem fields that have had to be left bare over the winter.

“It has been an extremely difficult time,” said Mr Patchett. “The general advice in recent years has been to delay drilling in an effort to combat blackgrass. This practice backfired in 2019, leading to a lost opportunity to get crops in the ground while conditions were still favourable.

“Nevertheless we must look ahead; spring oats are extremely competitive plants and they have the potential to smother blackgrass,” said Mr Patchett. “Some growers do not feel that they are a profitable crop, but there is market demand and their weed clean-up abilities should also be taken into account.”

Reviewing the 2019 harvest, Mr Patchett said wheat and barley yields had generally been above average, although weed issues had been the limiting factor in some cases.

Quality had held up in across the majority of crops, with the exception of wheat that had suffered from the delay in cutting dates due to the wet weather.

Independent agronomist Patrick Stephenson pointed to a 2019 harvest that was “up there with the best”.

“The Syngenta wheats, Gleam and Graham, gave good performance on clients’ farms,” he said. “All the hybrid barleys did very well, with the six-row KWS Funky probably the stand-out variety for this year.”

He conceded that autumn drilling had been difficult, with some opportunities lost and a proportion of those crops which had been sown likely to be ‘patchy’ due to poor establishment.

“I anticipate that growers will continue to drill winter wheat right up until February, which is an unprecedented situation for the North of England,” said Mr Stephenson. “They will persist because wheat is one of the more favourable commodities to sell and fewer inputs will be required due to the later drilling.

“Most weeds stop growing over winter and therefore herbicides will not be required until the spring. Late drilling also reduces fungal disease risk and allows some reduction in fungicide usage.

“In addition, the over-use of autumn herbicides can lead to a check in crop growth, which under these conditions could be disastrous.”

His standpoint on direct drilling is more guarded, compared with Mr Patchett.

“The higher rainfall in our regions means that a flexible approach is essential and growers should be guided by soil conditions when making a decision. In our part of the country we usually have fewer available drilling days in the autumn and the rotation should reflect this restriction. It is not advisable to become a disciple to the direct drill.

“The technique can produce good results, but the plough should be brought out if it is needed.”

Due to some fields being left unsown this autumn, he predicted a surge in orders for cereals and oilseed rape, as well as for spring beans, spring linseed and even forage crops like fodder beet.

Growers will need to be highly adaptable in the economic climate post-Brexit, stressed Mr Stephenson.

“The industry will be experiencing a far-reaching period of change and we will need to react quickly to market conditions. In the North we are relatively fortunate, because we have a range of outlets for our crops, including a strong biofuels industry. That gives us an advantage over some growers located further South.

“Novel crops such as soya beans are still out of reach in our part of the country, but they have significant potential for the future, if plant breeders can produce varieties with a shorter days-to-maturity requirement.”