Give biodiversity a boost by leaving uncropped areas free from herbicides

A major survey in the UK, last year, showed that earthworms are rare or absent in two out of five arable fields.
A major survey in the UK, last year, showed that earthworms are rare or absent in two out of five arable fields.
PJ Phelan

PJ Phelan

Field operations have ground to a halt, apart from the harvesting of vegetables and potatoes.

Sowings are well behind on most farms and given current soil conditions it is unlikely that we will see much more sown this year.

Emerging crops are slow and with very few alternatives crows are feasting on germinating seeds. There is little point in using deterrents as crows simply move from one part of the field to another.

The constant rainfall has kept aphid numbers low.

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There is no need to spray for aphids which also an opportunity to allow natural predators to thrive. There is a need to spray for grass weeds.

The continuous wet weather will possibly give a lot of annual meadowgrass - not to be seen yet in the later-sown crops.

Where possible avoid continuous use of the same herbicide year after year as you will end up building populations of weeds which are resistant to your favoured herbicide.

That risk will be reduced by adding a partner herbicide or going in with a clean-up herbicide in spring.

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Avoid use of herbicides on field margins where crops are not/will not be sowed as 'cleaned' areas are an ideal site for weeds such as sterile brome, wild oats, nettles and docks to colonise.

Given the increasing concern for crops and biodiversity, every herbicide application should be analysed carefully, and a serious question mark should be put over herbicide application for visual rather than agronomic needs.

Most people regard an unsown area of weeds as 'dirt', but it is possibly the only areas within the farm that provide a food source for a wide range of insects which in turn are a food source for birds and other wildlife.

As you may be using herbicides later than normal, check the latest approved timings and growth stages.

Check buffer zones for herbicide applications. While the buffer for most herbicides is 5m, some products have a higher requirement - for example, Tower has a 9m requirement.

Where STRIPE guidelines are followed, many buffer zones can be reduced to 1-2m. Remember that under the nitrate regulations no cultivation is permitted within 2m of a watercourse identified on the OSI 1:10560 map except in the case of grassland establishment.

In the event of possibly having to resow some crops next spring, check the minimum time interval between spraying your herbicide(s) and sowing the next crop.

Intervals vary depending on crop type and on resowing with or without ploughing.

Unfortunately, the wet autumn left many min-till growers with no option other than ploughing in order to get crops in this autumn. That has done damage to the soil structures that they had built up and which it will take several years to restore.

Earthworms, the major builders of soil structure are damaged by ploughing and soil cultivations.

A major survey in the UK, last year, showed that earthworms are rare or absent in two out of five arable fields. It showed that one in 10 fields had more than 16 worms per spadeful; the average field had nine and two fifths of fields had very few. Sixteen per cent of fields had few if any deep burrowing worms, the major contributor to soil drainage.

Earthworm populations are an indicator of overall soil biological health so we need to develop strategies to enhance/maintain populations.

Crop residues and weed growth outside of the growing season have a contribution to make but where populations are dropping other strategies must be put in place. Addition of livestock slurries, catch cropping, chopping straw and min-till have a contribution to make.

Those actions should be prioritised on the arable soils with the lower earthworm counts. To start the process you should carry out an earthworm survey on your farm.

Fertiliser programme

Now is the time to plan next year's fertiliser programme. Check that all land has been soil sampled within the past four years. Review your nutrient management plan and identify fields that are short of lime, phosphate or potash

Prioritise those for an early application to get them to a level that when you come to the main application next spring, you will be able to apply the same level of application across all fields on each block of land.

Finally, take care of your own health. Avoid processed foods. Eat Irish produced food - porridge is one of the few, if not the only breakfast cereal, without additives.

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