The View from the Hill June 2003
It always amazes me how much growth occurs in May, at the beginning of the month most of the crops are well under a foot high, and still pretty sleepy, whereas by the end of the month they are really motoring. The winter barleys are all well in ear, and flowering, wheats are just coming into ear, spring barleys are racing through the growth stages trying hard to catch up with the winter sown crops. They were sown five months later, but the harvest date difference will only be 3 to 4 weeks, and it is surprising how similar the yield can be sometimes. Why do we bother with winter barley then? I hear you shout. The winter and spring varieties have different characteristics for their end use, spring barley is a higher risk crop, and we don’t like all our eggs in one basket.
Whilst all this growth occurs, aided of course by a generous helping of nitrogen fertilizer, without which there would hardly be any crop at all, we have to make sure the crop plants stay healthy, are not suffocated by weeds, or devoured by pests, so May is also the month which sees the sprayer out working every day that is not windy or wet. All crops get a dose or two of weed killer to keep weeds like cleavers, knotgrass, bindweed and wild oats at bay. The more weak-strawed varieties may get a straw shortener if it looks like there’s a risk of them falling over by harvest time. Our combine driver takes a dim view of flat corn at harvest time, and the combine itself doesn’t much like the stones that get picked up when scraping flat crops off the ground.
We usually apply a product containing copper to our barley crops, the chalky soils around here are very low in natural copper, which is an important micronutrient, and barley is particularly sensitive to this. The rest of the spraying at this time of year is mainly fungicides, to keep the crops free of diseases. Diseases destroy valuable green leaf area, and the more of this that you can preserve, the better the chance of a decent yield at harvest. As usual, it is the weather that makes the biggest difference here, wet weather encourages the most damaging diseases, such as septoria tritici in wheat, and rhyncosporium secalis in barley. Research shows that a single well-timed application of the right fungicide can lift the yield of wheat in a bad septoria year by as much as 50%. That is a pretty useful payback, however every year is different, and to get the best response from controlling disease, you need to apply the spray before the visible symptoms of the disease appear, so not every year can you rely on turning a 6 ton per hectare crop into a 9 ton one. Charlie the fox has renewed the annual and unwelcome plunder of our poultry, our normally free range chickens and ducks are easy prey to the hungry vixen looking to feed her cubs. Three ducks and numerous hens have already been taken. The ducks are now shut in and will remain so for a couple of months, the hens have to be trusted to stay in the yard, defended by sheepdogs, who are also a bit of a hazard for them.