The battle against pests never ends
Unless there is a huge improvement in the weather during December, the 2014 sowing and spraying season is over. Given that 2014 has been the most compliant season in which to grow any crop in living memory, we can't complain. So it's time to park the sowers and sprayers until the spring.
That doesn't mean that crops can be forgotten about. Slugs are mounting late season attacks on many crops, especially where rotations include oilseed rape. Rats are having a big impact on some headlands, and other grazers such as rabbits and deer are also making their presence felt in areas.
Crows and pigeons are lining up on the runways to mount aerial bombardments as the days shorten. The high rainfall levels are also providing an opportunity to check out field drain efficacy, especially where work was recently carried out. In short, don't just head for the fire for the winter.
The closed season also provides an opportunity to get up to speed with the new SFP, now called the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS). One issue that that is causing a lot of confusion is the area of fields margins and buffer zones.
Hedgerows, buffer strips and drains are all eligible for calculations as Environmental Focus Areas (EFAs) with different conversion factors and weightings for each. It's important to remember that these are notional values and in most cases do not require any physical changes in the field. Sowing tightly up against hedgerows, drains, banks, fences and walls is permitted and it is good commercial practice to cultivate as much of the field as possible.
The one physical change necessary is when sowing along rivers that are marked out on an ordinance survey map (with an arrow marking out the direction of flow), or in blue on the online and Department maps. Under nitrates regulations, a crop cannot be established within 2m of the top of a river bank. In many instances there is no problem as there is a hedgerow or bank along the river and the river is well away from the cultivated field. However, there are instances where significant areas have to be left idle and this goes against everything that has been drilled into us about land use since cultivation of crops has begun.
There are reasons for this buffer zone. Firstly, the 2m extra keeps sprayers and fertiliser spreaders that bit further away from the rivers but more importantly, the buffer zone is to prevent soil particles suspended in field water from being washed into the rivers once the field become saturated. These soil particles contain phosphorus. The theory is that by increasing the buffer zone, the risk of soil particles being washed into rivers is reduced, thereby reducing phosphorus levels in the water.
During a cross-compliance inspection, if an inspector finds that the 2m buffer is not being maintained where it should be maintained, they will impose a sanction under the nitrates rules. This measurement can be made at any time of the cropping year.
While you're out looking at your established crops, have a walk around your rivers and if you feel you haven't kept the required 2m away from the bank, take action now. The best approach is to spread some grass seed in these zones even if a crop has already been sown within the buffer strip area. Put a marker on the headland tramline to make sure the sprayer operator keeps out from these newly sown areas. The grass will establish itself among the sown cereals and eventually will out-compete the cereals. This grass will also provide a marker for future cultivations as there will be a differentiation in future years when ploughing the fields. Be sure not to overdo the amount of area left out. Check the maps and bring a measuring tape with you.
An issue that will arise is when this grass will become encroached with noxious weeds, scrub etc. This will require mechanical topping if not spraying on a regular basis. Buffer strips will impose a reduction in output from area lost, as well as a cost on the management of these strips. But if you want to claim your basic and greening payments, you've got to adhere to all the regulations involved. 'Them's the rules'.
Dr Richard Hackett is an agronomist based in north Dublin and is a member of the ITCA and ACA.
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