2020 is a harvest that most farmers would probably like to forget. But from challenging years come vital lessons, says SWFC’s Anthony Ellis
Given the multiple challenges most of us faced, the 19/20 growing season was always going to test everyone’s resilience. The wettest winter on record, which saw plantings down and atrocious growing conditions for anything that was planted, was swiftly followed by the driest spring for over 20 years. As a result, this season’s yields have varied wildly across the Southwest – and across the country in general.
But from challenging years come vital lessons.
The Met Office has warned that current climate predictions mean spring droughts (as we have experienced in 2018 and 2020) are likely to become a one-in-three-year event, while rainfall distribution will become far more focused with shorter periods of much heavier rain. This warning must focus the mind of every farmer on building resilience into their farming systems.
Cereals under the strip tillage system coped far better and had higher yields than those under conventional tillage systems.
Although fairly new to reduced tillage techniques here at Pensipple Farm, our family farm near Looe in Cornwall, one thing we have definitely noticed in the dry spells of 2018 and 2020 is that cereals under the strip tillage system coped far better and had higher yields than those under conventional tillage systems.
We noticed that plants stayed greener for longer into the dry and generally looked healthier. The yield difference this year was also stark: the strip tilled wheat averaged 2.5t/ac (by no means a satisfactory yield), while the plough/power harrow wheat averaged 1.5t/ac. It’s probably best not to mention the winter barley at all!
Fortunately, our spring barley and oats fared much better, despite having to make some difficult decisions in terms of our failed winter barley crops (there, I mentioned it!). With the wet winter leaving the ground capped and compacted, we made the tricky call to plough out two of our winter barley fields and re-drill spring barley using a conventional system. In hindsight, I now think the Sumo DTS (below) could have easily handled the job. Where we used it to sow spring barley after cover crops, the DTS did a very nice job.
As we gain confidence in the strip till system, the lessons are simple. Don’t be afraid of it and use it more.
Spring barely doesn’t usually feature in our rotation but, after calling time on two fields of winter barley, we were pleasantly surprised with how the spring barley did at 2.25t/ac and a good lot of straw. Similarly, our spring oats (sown with the DTS) produced 2t/ac, which went for milling, as well as another good lot of oaten straw. As we gain confidence in the strip till system, the lessons are simple. Don’t be afraid of it and use it more.
Improvements in soil health under reduced cultivation techniques will likely be a significant part of the resilience equation for arable crops in the coming years. Combined with maintaining living roots in the soil for as much of the year as possible, widening the rotation with more diverse crops and actively managing soil to increase organic matter, these strategies will help us to build more resilient farming systems for an increasingly unpredictable future.