Stay off your land until it’s fit to cultivate this autumn rather than rushing on regardless in an attempt to catch-up after the single most challenging harvest in recent memory.
Otherwise you will only compound the serious damage your soil has suffered from the pressure of harvesting under near waterlogged conditions over an extended period.
This is the firm advice of independent tillage consultant, Steve Townsend who is seeing far too many people making a huge mess of their ground with inappropriate or ill-timed cultivations this season.
“Thankfully, the recent rainfall respite has allowed most people to get their harvesting over with,” he notes. “Although for many in the north, Midlands and west, in particular, it’s been more a salvage operation than anything else.
“It has also enabled ground to dry out well from the surface downwards. But it’s vital to appreciate just how much damage has been inflicted on the soil by wet weather combining and hauling. And the extent to which this damage will be made worse by trying to prepare seedbeds with heavy tillage kit before the ground can stand it.
“There’s particular danger if your cultivation system involves tilling to depths of more than 3-4” because this leaves looser soils with more air incorporated into them, so ruts and compaction will be much deeper and more problematic,” he points out. “In contrast, the firmer, better structured soils left by shallow tillage will only be suffering compaction in their upper layers, and this can easily be dealt with in your primary cultivation.”
With time at a particular premium as September rapidly gives way to October, Steve Townsend recommends the following cultivation tactics to make the most of difficult soil conditions this autumn:
§ Whatever you do don’t subsoil. This will only add to your problems by introducing more air into the deep soil layers, making them more vulnerable to future damage as well as further impairing drainage by smearing. Instead, fill the ruts in and, just like a plough pan, look to rectify the problem next autumn when conditions are better. Or, even better, give the soil time to heal itself. It’s amazing how effective a spell of dry summer weather can be in penetrating even deep pans in clayey soils through shrinkage and cracking.
- Spray-off any green stubbles with Roundup (glyphosate) before cultivating rather than attempting to set up a stale seedbed. You’ll need to get drilling as soon you can and the last thing you want to be doing is adding to your in-crop weed control challenge by transplanting lots of weed and volunteer seedlings with your cultivator.
- Wait until your soil is dry enough to take heavy cultivation equipment, especially
if you are ploughing or working deeply with a big set of discs, confining your cultivation strictly to the dry soil zone to minimise further damage.
- If you’re ploughing, remember that nice shiny tops to the turned-over furrows is
a sure sign you’ve got bad smearing at the base.
- If you’re min tilling, use heavy-duty tines with narrow tips in preference to discs to minimise smearing and disruptive balling-up with trash.
- Take a field-by field approach, assessing each for its condition ahead of heavy operations, and cultivating and drilling on the same day wherever possible. That way you use relatively weatherproof stubbles to prevent further problems from rainfall on freshly cultivated, unconsolidated ground.
- Place particular priority on pre-emergence weed control, including a high compatibility glyphosate in any pre-em mix applied more than five days after drilling providing there is no soil movement from germinating seed. This will maximise the kill of the grass weeds and volunteers which will already have started emerging under the near-ideal warm and wet soil conditions.
“More than anything else, the key to successful winter crop establishment without adding to your soil problems this season will be patience,” Steven Townsend insists. “This and having sufficient capacity and flexibility in your establishment system to go like hell when the conditions permit but hold-off when they don’t.
“Getting winter cereals in will certainly be a challenge for many. But it’s surprising how quickly even the heavier soils have been improving with the drier spell we’ve seen from mid-September. So I’m confident most people should be able to get much, if not all, their planned cereal acreage in if we get a relatively open autumn.
“Equally, I think we all need to appreciate that it won’t be the end of the world if some ground doesn’t get drilled ‘til the spring. Where soil conditions continue to be difficult this back end, indeed, it would be far better to wait and drill a spring crop rather than doing more damage to your ground by trying to muddle-in a winter one regardless.”
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