Wet weather gives arable farmers difficult decision

Waterlogged fields near Coldingham
Waterlogged fields near Coldingham

THE wet conditions of last year and the current prolonged cold snap continue to have a negative impact on arable farming in the border areas.

Many arable farmers across the Borders and north Northumberland are being forced to face tough decisions about their crops.

Several have decided to cut their losses and plough in their oilseed rape fields.

This drastic action allows farmers to concentrate on another, hopefully more profitable crop, but it does have its drawbacks.

The necessity of spraying these fields in order to kill off the existing crop only serves to increase costs.

However, a recent agricultural forum heard how there were reasons for optimism.

The presentations, arranged by Agrovista and Openfields, and hosted by The Hedgerow, near Belford, provided various perspectives on the difficult conditions.

And one of the key points made was that ploughing-in should only be tried in a worst case scenario.

Chris Martin, Agrovista’s tactical manager, went on to add that wheat yields in the region have been plateauing for nearly 20 years, and that improvement in production was simply not possible every year.

He added that current conditions were the worst he has known in two decades of looking at arable farms.

But he stressed that the experience of a wet 2012 means farmers can be more prepared for “extreme weather”.

“The important thing to do is to decide whether you keep the crops you have in the ground now,” he said.

He emphasised that even with rough weather predicted, crop revenue could be rescued through careful use of chemicals (soil nitrogen levels are now at their lowest for several years) and intensive weed and pest control.

He advised farmers to be vigilant against diseases that spread more easily in damp conditions, and: “Be patient. Effective use of chemicals won’t show a real growth until temperatures rise at least a few degrees.”

Even north of the border, where the soil has been even more heavily leached of nutrients, there is some good news.

NFUS has welcomed new dredging arrangements, announced by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), which will allow farmers to help prevent valuable fields from being flooded.

NFU Scotland has been pressing SEPA for two years to revise the rules on dredging, which has resulted in the announcement of a new ‘registration’ activity for dredging previously straightened watercourses up to five metres in width.

Applications to dredge will not be guaranteed automatically, but farmers who are toiling with clogged up ditches are highly recommended to apply to SEPA to dredge them.

Relieved

Costs have been cut to £77 for an on-line application, and authorisations can be granted after 30 days, as opposed to four months, which was previously the case.

NFUS vice-president, Allan Bowie, said: “Farmers will be very relieved at SEPA’s new approach to dredging, which is a significant achievement for NFUS lobbying.

SEPA have made a sensible decision which could make a real difference to farmers whose fields have lain miserably under water.

The effects of flooding on farmland can be devastating, severely affecting returns and degrading precious soils.

“Farmers have struggled acutely in recent years as rainfall has been unusually high; additionally, they have often been fearful of carrying out what would, in fact, be legitimate works to clear out watercourses in case they breach cross-compliance rules, thereby incurring heavy fines.

“As a result, a great deal of ditch-clearing and general maintenance has not taken place in recent years, compounding the effects of prolonged wet weather.

“NFUS is fully accepting of SEPA and SNH’s important role in protecting water quality and biodiversity, however, the rules and permitting associated with dredging have previously been too restrictive and costly.

“Following several seasons of relentless wet weather, flooding and waterlogging of farmland has become a serious issue across much of Scotland as regulation and fear of penalties have stifled essential maintenance.

“Farmers should be aware that this new relaxation relates specifically to previously straightened watercourses, however, farmers whose ditches, burns and rivers have not been straightened and are facing flooding and drainage problems should still contact SEPA to see what options are open to them.”