Richard Hackett: Next two weeks could dictate if the harvest proves bountiful or a complete washout
With the weather taking a turn, it looks like the wheat septoria programmes we have been using are going to be really tested over the next few weeks.
Septoria is not our only foe. One fungal disease that is really rearing its ugly head this year is yellow rust. Control of yellow rust is a real lesson in Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Varietal resistance is normally a very effective controlling mechanism, with dependence on fungicides a very poor second option.
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This year some varieties are exhibiting complete breakdown to the disease and are proving very costly crops to produce. These varieties should not be grown again and should be removed from the list of available varieties for next year.
While IPM for septoria control is still in its infancy, we really should control yellow rust by non-chemical methods, especially stringent variety selection. It's very effective and can reduce production costs and reduce pesticide loading on a crop.
The season is rapidly approaching the time of year that will determine the final yield outcome of our main cereal crops.
Winter crops are now in the ground for nearly nine months, hundreds of euro has been spent on every acre, preparing land, sowing them carefully, controlling the weeds, applying nutrients to eliminate any deficiency, eliminating any potential risk of pest or disease.
Despite all this effort, it's the weather patterns over the next few weeks that will determine whether the harvest of 2019 will be a bountiful affair, or a complete wash out.
Cereal yields are made up of four components: the number of plants per metre square, the number of ears per plant, the number of grains per ear, and the weight of each grain.
For a crop like winter wheat, the first three components are very interdependent: deficiencies in one can be compensated for by another component,
For example a low number of plants can lead to a high number of tillers per plant, a low number of ears can result in ears with very large numbers of grains per ear.
Over the course of a season, the plant will react to conditions and competition to increase/ decrease the potential to produce viable seeds.
It can increase/ decrease the number of tillers or the number of grains on each ear. This is all to maximise the number of viable grains produced on a given area.
Recently I came across a wheat plant that had germinated in disturbed rich soil along a hedgerow.
I counted 22 tillers on the one plant. If you give an average of 45 grains per ear on each tiller, that's 990 grains that had emerged from the one grain that had the luck of falling in an open area of fertile soil, with no competition for light, nutrient, moisture or space.
Once the head emerges, the number of grains per unit area is generally set. From then on, the only component that can be manipulated is the weight of each grain that is produced.
For temperate crops like cereals, the weather conditions that they need to work at their most efficient is cool bright conditions. The plant needs bright conditions, as more sunlight converts light energy into usable energy that we can sell as trailer loads of grain. However, conditions need to be cool so that the plant is not losing moisture. If a plant is losing moisture quickly, it shuts down. Moisture retention is more critical to a plant's survival than filling each grain.
For a season like last year, plants spent the vast majority of the bright sunny days shut down. If the plants opened up to grow, moisture loss was too severe.
When you go back to bumper harvest years, they all can be traced back to cool bright conditions during grain fill. The opposite is also the case.
Go back to poor yield years like 2012 for example, when dull wet murky weather blighted the summer and severely impeded grain fill.
Despite the money we spend on cereal production, the marketing of the fancy fungicides and shiny metal, the predominant features that mark out high yield production is fertile soil, good rotation slots, but more scarily, the weather that occurs over a two-week window in the middle of the summer.
It's time to get the weather chants going.
Groundbreaking: Automated tractor
CASE IH is set to give the latest version of its automated tractor concept a UK debut at next month's Goodwood Festival of Speed.
The autonomous tractor can be operated unmanned and monitored remotely.
It is equipped with a range of technologies that mean that once the tractor is in the field it can work completely independently, eliminating the need for a driver to observe operations.
Should the tractor encounter an obstacle it automatically stops, the owner is alerted, and the machine does not restart until camera feeds are checked and a decision is taken.
It also offers the potential to automatically adapt to weather events.
For example, the tractor would stop automatically should it become apparent changeable weather would cause a problem, then recommence work when conditions have sufficiently improved.
And while the vehicle is still at the research stage, technologies from the concept model have already been rolled out in the latest Case IH tractors including the AFS Connect Magnum, due to be launched in Europe in autumn 2019.
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