Sunday, November 19, 2017

Anti-establishment

November 1, 2016 by  
Filed under Clodhopper

A lot less oilseed rape is being grown this autumn. But not through choice, says Clodhopper.

Oilseed rape is not a crop I enjoy growing. It always seems to have problems – and all too often it gets in the way when there are better things that need to be done.

Rape establishment coincides with the all-important wheat harvest so it can often be treated as a second class crop. It can be argued that rape has always needed to be established at the lowest cost and the most convenient way possible.

This year has almost seen the disappearance of oilseed rape from the rotation altogether. Not through choice, I hasten to add, but because controlling cabbage stem flea beetle has proved impossible since the ongoing ban on neonicotinoid seed treatments.

Last year, farmers in the four counties of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Norfolk and Bedfordshire were granted special permission to use neonicotinoids. But no such use has been granted this season – despite problems appearing to be more widespread.

It is the third successive season that neonicotinoid seed dressings have been restricted due to ongoing concern that the chemicals are damaging to bees and other pollinators. But let’s go back to the start of my career as an oilseed rape grower.

Strongly in favour

I started growing rape to replace the low profit making sugar beet crop. When you compared gross margins, the figures were strongly in favour of rape. At the time, beet was worth less than £20/t but rape was worth more than £305/t. On those figures alone it stacked up.

Even without rape, sugar beet would have been axed. But the beet crop certainly gave me more enjoyment. Rape establishment on heavier soils was a battle involving various pieces of equipment. I used a Claydon drill in the first year, direct drilling it into stubble.

Germination was patchy at best. The seedbed was so uneven that when the rolls entered the field they didn’t touch much of the land because of the ridges. I soon abandoned this method and replaced it with a rape seeder on top of a Vaderstad.

This produced good results for many years. All the soil was moved and rolled and slugs were rarely a problem. For reasons of machine replacement, I later used a subsoiler technique, which gave variable results – including during the last four years.

Lighter land was always ploughed and drilled in a conventional way and I always achieved success – perhaps in part due to the condition of the soil. But I wonder whether the actual placement of the seed rather than a broadcast method also plays an important part.

Down the cracks

When using the subsoil method, I never really know how much is falling down the cracks. Or how deep to use the machine to best keep the soil structure intact. As I have said, out of a near 40ha of rape, this year only 6-8ha remain.

The rest either never came up, or came up and struggled with the lack of water and excessive heat. What survived faces an uncertain future. It has been constantly under attack from flea beetle and is unlikely to last the winter befire being replaced by a spring crop of some sort.

Thus, I always feel attention to detail is lacking with the rape crop. Other crops get lavished with attention but the hectic cereal harvest means there is very little time or labour to look after for rape or give it the attention it deserves.

If home labour is not available, a contractor will be used and there always seems to be timing issues. Rolling the crop, for example, is often done before the combines start to roll in the morning. So is slug pellet application and nitrogen.

One man job

It is a one man job scenario with the least busy man getting the job. Everything is rushed. Weekly crop inspections are sometimes missed and the rape is expected to look after itself – so slugs, flea beetle and rabbits soon take their toll.

Sometimes, good establishment is achieved – and with it the prospect of a healthy crop going into the winter. So it is even more demoralising when the dreaded wood pigeon soon finds the crop and a whole new counter attack has to be deployed.

With most growers having suffered lower yields for the 2106 harvest, it surprising that anyone is growing rape at all. Poor prices and a 14% drop in yields are enough to put anyone off – although most combinable crops would disappear this autumn if that were the case all round.

Recent rising costs mean all crops face a challenge in the next 12 months – despite the ‘Brexit bounce’ in commodity prices. It is a real concern. Those with other sources of revenue may be able to ride out the storm. But those who rely on farm gate prices face a winter of discontent.

Economies of scale and their ability to borrow more mean larger farms are better placed to survive than smaller farms. The 200-400ha farm – once the backbone of British agriculture – faces real hardship. Let’s hope they don’t go the same way as oilseed rape.

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