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FW Opinion: Wet winter prompts radical rethink on cropping

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Britain’s arable farmers are counting the cost of a terrible start to the cropping season, characterised by daily downpours and an absence of drying winter winds.

Only eight years ago, growers were in a similar situation after a monsoon winter resulted in an unplanned surge in spring cropping.

But this time it’s worse, as many farmers delayed drilling to control blackgrass. On top of this, arable businesses face the uncertainties of Brexit and surviving without direct subsidy payments.

So now may be the right time to take a longer-term view, rather than just fixing this season.

See also: Arable finances – what to consider after tough winter

Back on Track series

Over the next few weeks, growers will be trying to salvage their cropping after the wettest winter in living memory. Decisions made now will have lasting implications on rotations for the next two to three years.

That’s why Farmers Weekly has kicked off a four-part “Back on Track” series to help navigate these issues.

As growers are being forced to make changes, there is an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive and get businesses in better shape, ready for the challenges ahead.

A good starting point is to identify those unprofitable parts of fields that are at greater risk from extremes in weather, such as flooding.

These areas may well be better off in environmental schemes, earning a regular – albeit lower – income, even in the challenging seasons.

Growers may also benefit from making radical changes to their rotation. Many are already having to make unplanned changes, so why not make it count?

For example, having a wider rotation may help in the battle against oilseed rape’s number-one pest.

Cabbage stem flea beetle has hammered many OSR crops and chemical measures are largely ineffective. This leaves cultural measures such as companion cropping and earlier drilling.

While the success of these measures is debatable, one message is that growers with wider rotations have generally been less affected. Wider rotations also help reduce disease pressure.

This autumn has also highlighted the shortcomings of heavily relying on some cultivation systems. There has been frustration with some expensive drills being left stranded in the shed.

As in 2012, combi drills have once again been dragged out of the nettles to save the day. This highlights the need for a more flexible approach – at least until soils are in better shape and can cope with very wet spells.

Finally, fallowing may prove tempting for some. Reducing the cropping area will free up some businesses to be more creative with machinery sharing agreements, helping to cut costs.

More radical options include introducing pigs or sheep in rotations. Done properly, this can boost soil health, reduce herbicide costs and bring another income stream.

Farmers would not have chosen to endure this season’s monsoon, but they may be grateful in future that the tough decisions that arose from it will make their business more resilient to future cuts in subsidy payments.