Agronomy and Research Update
Field Vision

Introducing a new monthly blog featuring news, ideas, questions and ongoing research results from my trips around our member's farms.

Over the last couple of weeks I've been out and about as the weather warms up and the crops really get going, it's an ideal time to see things in full swing and get a good idea of how things are looking after the winter/early spring where the scene is set for the rest of the season. I have to say most winter crops are looking very well. There are some oat and wheat crops on heavy land that haven't faired well over the winter but the picture is mostly positive. I've been particularly struck by the winter bean crops that I've seen, with tall, healthy, vigourous crops the norm.  Interestingly, within the trials, most of the crops that were behind coming out of Winter have now caught up the more forward varieties. Below are summaries of the key observations:

Winter Wheat

Vigour Scores

The Extase/Mayflower blend appears to be delivering on it's promise of a strong performance from its complementary components. Mayflower, Redwald, Astronomer and Extase and YQ also look strong. Highgrove (after early promise) has fallen away, and Champion and Typhoon have maintained their poor start to the season. It is a very similar picture for ground cover with the Extase Mayflower blend, Mayflower and Redwald having the highest cover. Height also follows this general pattern, although due to it's advanced development, Extase is the tallest. Most surprising is that Extase is one of the weedier varieties this season, with both Mayflower, and its blend with Extase  having the lowest weed cover.


Winter Oats

Oat crops generally seemed to have faired ok, but are relatively poor compared to other seasons, and to wheat this season, perhaps struggling in the wet conditions more than the wheat has. One unexpected result from the winter oat variety trials is that there is a  bad crown rust outbreak at only one of the six sites assessed, across all the varieties, with something about that site favouring the disease.

Vigour Scores

Mascani and Cromwell have shown the highest vigour since Christmas (Husky as a Spring oat had good early vigour, but the others have now surpassed it) Mascani refers to the trial seed sent out, whereas Mascani New refers to new commercial seed bought by the farm, and Mascani HS refers to home-saved seed. Interestingly the home-saved Mascani has lower vigour than the other Mascani crops. As a Spring oat Husky is now at quite an advance growth stage compared to the winter oats, with the panicles nearly fully emerged. It may reach harvest significantly early than the others, raising the option of spring  crops sown in the autumn for early harvest.

Winter Beans

Winter bean crops  look fantastic with most tall, vigourous, smothering weeds, healthy without too much disease and full  of flowers ready to be pollenated. Time will tell how many pods and seeds the crops have but the potential for a good yield is there at this stage. Indications form one of our trial sites suggest Tundra should be the variety of choice for chocolate spot resistance, whilst vespa should not! One farmer is trialling a sulphur based fungicide on his crops that looks to have controlled chocolate spot very well on the lower leaves.

Beans could lend themselves well to blends if the right combination of complementary traits can be found which is a work in progress in our trials.  Now would be a great time to pull up a few winter bean plants to assess nodulation and activity. They should be at peak N-fixation at flowering, ahead of pod and seed set, when the nodules will die off. Whilst beans aren't considered weed suppressive they form a dense canopy that can shade out weeds well this time of year. The problem comes when the crop starts to senesce, the canopy dies off, light penetrates to the ground and nitrogen is released from the nodules as the decay, creating a perfect storm for late season weed growth. Bi-cropping with oats or perhaps wheat should help with the weeds but the cereal crop will also likely be swamped out in the earlier part of the season. 

Finally, it is something of a fallacy that beans don't  need fertility as they fix their own nitrogen. Beans do very well with good levels of P and K, particularly as the former mediates the energy cost of biological N fixation. The beans require a source of nitrogen to get them going, and growing well before they begin to fix their own. Too much N applied will hinder N fixation as the crop will not need to "pay the cost" of fixing N itself, but an early dose should help with good early establishment and to build  the biomass the crop needs to maximise N fixation. It may be worth considering placing beans higher up the roation where they can use the fertility and also, leave behind fertility for following crops. The weed burden will also be lower further up the rotation.

Novel Crops

Finally, on my travels I have seen a fantastic crop of Winter linseed grown in Norfolk and a great crop of Winter Oilseed rape grown in Hampshire. Whilst wheat and oats will always remain the foundation of any good organic rotation, perhaps more novel crops should start being considered, given the perceived agronomic constraints to growing them may not actually exist in reality. Of course, a guaranteed market would be key.