CAFRE crops advice - Planning for an improvement in weather

Date published: 10 April 2024

“Hopefully as you read this the forecast that has just popped up on my phone predicting a drier end to April will have come true,” says Leigh McClean, Crops Advisor, CAFRE. He suggests that while growers in NI are well used to coping with late spring catch up, there are still a few things worth considering now in advance of the rush that any improvement in weather will bring.

Inspect winter crops closely as they might have developed further than they first appear.

Despite wet ground and slow growth, winter crop development is still progressing.  Where sprays are yet to be applied, particularly herbicides and growth regulator on winter barley, growers should keep a close watch on crops and aim to apply by the latest safe application timing to avoid crop damage.  If ground conditions mean that’s not possible, it may be necessary to switch products which are crop safe at a later growth stage. 

Nitrogen is now critical on winter barley and where none has been applied yet, we may have to accept a degree of field damage to get crops fed as some are in the stem extension phase when crop demand for nutrients is highest.  Earlier sown winter wheat and oats are also progressing quickly and need their main Nitrogen applications as soon as possible.  When ground conditions allow, apply the bulk of the nitrogen to these crops at the start as there is little point delaying or splitting applications at this stage.

Very little spring drilling has occurred yet apart from some late drilled winter wheat and a few spring beans.  Every effort should be made to apply pre-emergent herbicide to the beans but if they are emerging or close to emerging crop damage can occur and post emergent product containing bentazone will be the only herbicide option to control broad leaved weeds.  The spectrum of weeds controlled by this active is very limited compared to pre-emergent sprays and crop stunting is common, therefore only apply if susceptible weeds are present.

As the season gets later the yield potential, and hence profitability, of spring barley diminishes.  However, experience has shown that if spring barley gets off to the right start with no setbacks and favourable summer weather it can compensate well.  Decisions on farm should be made on a field-by-field basis to decide which ones are worth sowing.  Where forage stocks need replenished it could be worth reconsidering grass fields originally destined for ploughing as additional grass and silage may be needed on some farms.  Fallow is still permittable under Basic Payment Scheme and can be an option particularly where a field will need remedial action such as drainage.  In these circumstances cover crops or short term fodder crops such as kale sown in early summer could help make up the fodder balance and still allow an autumn sown cereal entry later in the year.  Where soil type is suitable and free draining, traditionally later sown forage crops such as maize or fodder beet could be a possibility where a market can be identified.  Carefully consider these crops, as they come with a risk of late harvest, impacting on following crops in the rotation. Where spring cereals are to be sown seed rates should be increased as the season gets later and the proportion of fertiliser to be applied at planting should also be increased.

For potato growers some early potatoes were planted February and early March but there has been little progress since then. Efforts to salvage any remaining crop from last year need to be carefully weighed up against the cost and return and the potential impact on delaying planting of this year’s crop.   A constant watch should be kept on seed in store to ensure sprouts are controlled.  Where seed has been delivered in bags ensure this is put into clean boxes to ensure better airflow.  Whilst there will be pressure to get potatoes in the ground when conditions improve always remember that ground conditions are critical when planting and compaction caused during planting is one of the biggest factors in limiting potato yields.  Waiting just one extra day can have a big effect on improving soil conditions particularly at depth where the damage usually occurs. In many cases following a prolonged wet spell we may get a prolonged dry spell so it will be important to keep an eye on ensuring pre-emergent herbicides do not get forgotten in the rush to get planting completed as for some varieties they may be the only safe option.  As planting gets delayed growers also need to keep in mind the desiccation of the crops. Later planted crops should receive less nitrogen to ensure they are beginning to naturally senesce to allow successful desiccation in time for harvest.

Notes to editors: 

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