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Spring washout puts East Anglia’s farmers up to a month behind schedule

PUBLISHED: 14:03 04 April 2018 | UPDATED: 14:03 04 April 2018

A waterlogged farm field at Little Melton. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

A waterlogged farm field at Little Melton. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

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A wet spring has brought a raft of issues for East Anglia’s farmers – hampering fieldwork, creating health issues for livestock, and damaging harvest yield prospects by delaying the sowing of spring crops.

Seed drilling in north Norfolk on a rare dry day just before Easter. Picture: Kit PapworthSeed drilling in north Norfolk on a rare dry day just before Easter. Picture: Kit Papworth

Progress on East Anglia’s arable farms is up to a month behind schedule after a wet start to spring brought work to a standstill in sodden fields.

Forecasters with Norwich-based Weatherquest said almost a month’s worth of rain fell in parts of the region during the Easter weekend, with 41mm recorded in Cromer, 35mm in Santon Downham and 30mm in Marham in those four days, compared to March’s regional monthly average of 44mm.

The continued wet weather has made it impossible for heavy machinery to work on waterlogged farmland, delaying the planting of crops including spring barley and sugar beet, and the spraying of fungicides on wheat and barley already in the ground.

Farmers said this will reduce yields at harvest time – and could potentially even have a knock-on effect on next year’s crops.

Matthew Hawthorne, farm manager at the Euston Estate. Picture by: Sonya DuncanMatthew Hawthorne, farm manager at the Euston Estate. Picture by: Sonya Duncan

At the Euston Estate, on the Norfolk-Suffolk border near Thetford, 105mm of rainfall was recorded in March, and 47mm over the Easter weekend alone.

Farm manager Matthew Hawthorne said although he was able to take advantage of dryer spells to get up to date with sprays and fertilisers for cereals, his main concern is that sugar beet planting is now three to four weeks behind schedule – which could force a decision in autumn over whether to leave the beet growing longer, or sacrifice some of its yield in order to plant the following wheat crop at the optimum time.

“We can leave sugar beet in the ground longer so it can catch up,” he said. “But some of it was going to be followed with wheat so I want the sugar beet harvested and gone by mid-October. Now, if I am going to have to wait for the yield on sugar beet I probably won’t be able to grow the wheat behind it.

“On the more arable end of the farm we might have to lose sugar beet yield to give the best chance for the wheat.

Simon Brock, manager of Swanton Morley Farms, near Dereham. Picture: Chris HillSimon Brock, manager of Swanton Morley Farms, near Dereham. Picture: Chris Hill

“I am thinking of the next crop. You don’t want to let the bad spring of 2018 affect the wheat of 2019. So let’s stop the bad story with the sugar beet.

“Of course, we could have a beautiful summer and still get the yield we want by the end of September, but the reality is we are drilling it a month late, so the odds are against us.

“The other thing to consider is that British Sugar need a crop they can process when the factories open in September, so everything has a knock-on effect.”

North Norfolk-based contractor Kit Papworth said it had been a “disastrous” start to the farming year, which will affect yield and prices later in the season.

Cattle on James Runciman's farm in north Norfolk during the snow at the beginning of March.Cattle on James Runciman's farm in north Norfolk during the snow at the beginning of March.

“We are realistically three weeks behind where we would hope to be,” he said. “The potatoes have suffered the least, but so far it is really the sugar beet and the spring-drilled cereal that are being particularly affected.

“If the spring barley is in the ground it is wet, and if it is not then it is losing yield because it is not growing. The year has a habit of catching itself up, so the harvest will be around the same time, but the wet spring is definitely going to have a big impact on yield for all spring cropping.”

Simon Brock, manager of Swanton Morley Farms, which is the Norfolk representative in the AHDB (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board) Monitor Farm network, said: “It is pretty grim – we had 71mm of rain last week. We have got our first round of fertiliser on, but normally we would have started that at the end of February. We have not put any sugar beet in yet and we have only drilled half our spring barley.

“We are a month behind, and for what we have drilled it is so wet it won’t be a lot of good. And we would normally have a round of early fungicide on, but we have not been able to do that. So there will be an effect on yield.”

Andrew Melton, regional agronomy manager for Frontier Agriculture, urged patience from farmers who have fallen behind on their fungicide or nutrient programmes, and also to resist the temptation to cultivate for spring crops before the land is dry enough – or risk long-term soil damage.

“The worry at this time of the year is that people will understandably get extremely keen to create and establish seed beds for their spring crops,” he said. “We have clients with thousands of acres ahead of them, with a bottleneck of work building up and they want to crack on.

“But we have to be very mindful of what might be underneath. If you do some damage at depth in soil structure it is very difficult to repair it.

“People want to charge on, but we should be careful and pick the right moment. If the land is not right it is not right, and the throwing more horsepower at it is not the best way forward.”

LIVESTOCK CONCERNS

The delayed arrival of spring has also brought potential problems for livestock farmers.

James Runciman, who farms near Fakenham, is a member of the NFU regional livestock board. He said: “I am pulling my hair out. We are running out of straw and straw prices are double what they were a year ago. Forage stocks are running out fast and this damp wet weather is helping pneumonia in cattle sheds, which we usually see in November.

“I have been turning out cows now because they are healthier outside, but the sheep boys have got lambs waiting to go outside the shed but it is so damp out there it is giving them problems.

“We would usually expect to be turning cows out on good covers of grass by now, but there is nothing at the moment.

“It is only around the corner, with some sunshine and a bit of dry weather. We are all optimists. But it would be a real issue if we have another month of this. Hopefully in the next couple of weeks we can start getting animals out on fields and for the countryside to come alive.”

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