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Prospects for 2020 harvest ‘grim’ as dry spring hits young crops

PUBLISHED: 05:35 26 April 2020

Auturmn and spring cropping at farms across Suffolk and north Essex have suffered setbacks after too much rain was followed by too little  Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

Auturmn and spring cropping at farms across Suffolk and north Essex have suffered setbacks after too much rain was followed by too little Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

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East Anglian farmers are facing another huge weather headache after a bone-dry spring sowing season.

An oilseed rape field in mid Suffolk in spring 2020  Picture: SARAH CHAMBERSAn oilseed rape field in mid Suffolk in spring 2020 Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

Arable growers were tearing their hair out in the autumn as incessant rain and flooding left them with soils which were too soggy to sow.

That meant they had to rely more heavily on spring sowing for those that couldn’t get their crops in the ground because of the conditions.

Even where they did, some crops failed to get off to a good start, with farmers forced to rip them out and start again. Pests such as cabbage stem flea beetle – which attacks oilseed rape – had a field day in the wet conditions.

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But several weeks of dry weather this spring has meant that seeds have found it more difficult to germinate and get established.

An onion crop being irrigated on the Euston Estate in spring 2020  Picture: ANDREW BLENKIRONAn onion crop being irrigated on the Euston Estate in spring 2020 Picture: ANDREW BLENKIRON

National Farmers’ Union vice president Tom Bradshaw, who farms at Fordham, near Colchester, said only a few weeks ago, farmers were desperate for dry weather – but now they are having too much of it. It was clear that they were now seeing more weather extremes and volatility than previously, he added.

If the dry spell goes on for another two weeks, it would start to cause real problems. On his own farm, his wheat crop would start to be compromised, he
said.

Guy Smith, who farms at St Osyth, near Clacton-on-Sea – one of the driest parts of the country – admitted it had been a difficult growing season.

“In the last six weeks we have gone from worrying about getting machinery stuck after the winter deluge to fallowing land due to spring drought.

Skyfall winter wheat, pictured on the Euston Estate in spring 2020,  has fared better than many cereal crops elsewhere because its light, free-draining soils meant it could be planted in autumn and get its roots down  Picture: ANDREW BLENKIRONSkyfall winter wheat, pictured on the Euston Estate in spring 2020, has fared better than many cereal crops elsewhere because its light, free-draining soils meant it could be planted in autumn and get its roots down Picture: ANDREW BLENKIRON

“My neighbour ripped up a crop of winter wheat in March because it had established so badly having being ‘puddled in’ in the autumn.

“Because of lack of rain he is now irrigating the replacement spring wheat to try to get it to grow. To go from getting two to three times our average rainfall in the five months October to February to then get seven weeks with no significant rain is the most perverse turnaround I’ve ever witnessed.

“Fertiliser is not getting washed into the crops we did get established in the autumn and anything spring-drilled into cobbly seedbeds is struggling to establish. Rain over the next couple of weeks may put things back on track, but prospects for harvest 2020 look grim.”

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Glenn Buckingham, chair of the Suffolk branch of the National Farmers’ Union, who farms at Helmingham, near Debenham said the situation was “concerning” – but farmers should expect more of this, as climate change models suggest more weather volatility is on the horizon.

“Having gone from very wet to dry enough to not ensure full germination of seeds is amazing, particularly in a season when there is more spring sowing than normal, certainly affecting nitrogen up take also. For those that irrigate it’s an early start, but at least from full water resources, let’s hope reasonable rainfall returns.

“But should we expect more of this? Yes is the answer – all climate change models predict this. Will we act to help? Well let’s hope so, otherwise it can only get worse, with increased volatility in weather patterns food production will be the same – unpredictable –and the industry most exposed – agriculture.”

David Barker, of EJ Barker and Sons at Westhorpe, near Stowmarket, said rain would be worth “a vast amount” at the moment.

“We have had the most desperately wet autumn and the most desperately dry spring,” he said. “We have got seed on the ground which hasn’t germinated.”

Chris Mobbs, of Cratfield, near Halesworth, who grows seeds to feed his turkeys, said his small rape crop went in in the autumn, but the wet, followed by cabbage stem flea beetle had finished it off, and they were now planning to put in some cover crop to help the soil, but the prolonged dry spell had proved difficult. “It’s so dry, what’s going to grow?” he said.

Andrew Blenkiron, director of the Euston Estate, near Thetford, said he was one of the lucky ones, as his light, free-draining soil had on this occasion worked to the crops’ advantage because – unlike other farm businesses – he hadn’t been held up in getting his autumn crops sown because of boggy conditions.

But for many others, the long, dry spell had just compounded what was already “quite a serious issue”. Winter crops tend to do better on yield anyway, so for those who couldn’t get their crops sown in the autumn, the difficult spring conditions had only added to their woes, he said.

“They were waiting to get spring crops sown because it was too wet – then it was too dry.”

The sugar beet was “pretty desperate” for rain, but the crop had amazing powers of recovery, he said.

The farm had helped out a neighbour with some irrigation to try and rescue his spring barley crop and get it established.

However, Euston’s vegetable crops under irrigation – onions and potatoes – had got off to a good start, he said.

In February this year, Euston had 135mm of rain, compared to 25mm the previous year. But in March there was a complete turnaround, with just 24mm compared to 52mm in 2019.

In April so far, the farm has seen just 5mm of ran, compared to 13mm last year. September and October of last year saw 140mm, and December and January 90mm.


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