NIAB - National Institute of Agricultural Botany

Orson's Oracle

Brexit exposes lack of agricultural knowledge

Posted on 22/07/2016 by Jim Orson

I usually read the opinion columns in The Times. They are generally thoughtful and at times provocative. However, I was dismayed by the lack of understanding of agriculture shown in a piece by Emma Duncan on 9th July. She is an assistant editor of The Economist and so, in my view, should be more aware of how the economics of the industry ticks.

She was a Remainer and starts the article by saying that she has been looking for some good news from Brexit. She says that she has found solace that Brexit is likely to be bad news for ‘greedy farmers’. It appears from the article that she has complete disdain for the industry.

Her conclusion is that after Brexit there will be less support for agriculture leading to lower food prices, less intensive systems and land going out of production, so there will be more land available for building houses.Brexit Farmers

She is clearly thinking that we are receiving price support rather than support for eligible land area. Price support generally disappeared a couple of decades ago, although the sugar price is supported for another year or two. Hence, we are already competing in world markets and so removing current support measures will not reduce the product prices received by UK farmers.

As for making more land available for building houses, landowners already jump at the opportunity to get building permission. We do not have to see land going idle before they are willing to sell!

What really concerns me about this article is that an opinion-former is unaware of the real issues of food production in the UK. This does not bode well for public support for any agricultural subsidy arrangements post-Brexit.

To add to my concerns, Andrea Leadsom, the new Defra secretary, also seemed at one time to be unaware of the market issues relating to agricultural products. She has been quoted as a supporter of “reducing burdensome EU red-tape, saving farmers time and making food cheaper” and in 2007 argued that farming subsidies must be abolished.

I realise that there is a real hope that red tape can be reduced, but I think much will have to continue to reassure our customers that we have a transparent and traceable food chain.

Brexit may mean a return to more scientifically based decision-making, particularly for pesticides. Interestingly, there is concern expressed by some in the wider EU that decision-making will suffer because of less input from British scientists.

The future may possibly hold some advantages from Brexit but there is a huge challenge ahead to inform decision-makers, opinion-formers and the general public of the true context and importance of food production in the UK. Judging by the article in The Times, there is a long way to go.

Pesticide Regulations post-Brexit is a major theme of The BCPC Congress at Brighton in early October.

Blog 175

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English wheat harvest 2016

Posted on 08/07/2016 by Jim Orson

I have just attended the funeral of a former colleague. One reading included the following words: “There is no longer any room for pretence. At harvest time the essence is revealed – the straw and chaff are set aside, they have done their job. The grain alone matters – sacks of pure gold.” Sacks of pure gold may be an exaggeration with today’s market prices.

What will the English wheat harvest of 2016 reveal? Over the last few years I have written a blog in early July, half way through grain fill, trying to predict yields. As usual, I have not really got sufficient meteorological data to attempt a complete scientific analysis. Nevertheless, here goes.

wheat harvestThere have been studies to try to associate historical wheat yields with weather conditions. The most notable was published in 2000. This states that the most influential weather impacts on the yields of well grown wheat crops are (1) negative effects of rainfall before and during anthesis (early June), during grain-filling and in the spring (2) winter frost damage (3) a positive effect of the temperature-driven duration of grain-filling and (4) a positive effect of radiation around anthesis, probably due to increased photosynthesis.

Naturally, there may be an interaction between rainfall and solar radiation. Radiation levels are low in wet weather. This might help to explain some of the dominance of rainfall distribution in this analysis.

The importance of lack of rainfall at key times is highlighted. “Negative effects of rainfall during the estimated early-reproductive phase, the estimated anthesis phase, the estimated grain-filling phase and the February/March period are the most dominant effects in the climate response sub-model (explaining 54% of the grain yield variation accounted for by the model).”

This strikes a chord with my experience. High wheat yields seem to be associated with dry but not drought years e.g. 1984, 2014, 2015. May rainfall explained much of the yield variation throughout the country last year. Where there was little rain in May, drought conditions limited the potentially very high yields.

In 2014 and 2015, we had dry conditions from mid-February/March, April and June, the stages highlighted by this paper. In addition, we had a long grain fill because of coolish conditions both day and night (Number 3 in the paper summary above) and good levels of radiation around anthesis (Number 4 in the paper summary above).

For much of the country, this year’s weather does not appear to point to high yields in 2016. February had average or lower than average rainfall and March was dry in the North East but the rest of England had a wetter March than average. We had plenty of rain in June in much of the country but again the North East had average rainfall. Radiation levels were generally around average for much of the spring but, critically, lower than average in June, except in the North of England, which enjoyed average or above average sunshine and radiation. June temperatures were higher than average except close to the East Coast where the cold North Sea temperatures resulted in average temperatures in the coastal strip from North Norfolk northwards.

Therefore wheat yields are likely to be around average, perhaps on the disappointing side of average in the central and southern areas that have had particularly low levels of radiation and well above average rainfall for June. The exception might be the very North of England where I suspect that there will be above average yields but perhaps not at the levels achieved last year, providing, of course, that the harvest weather is good.

The paper I quoted earlier in this blog probably reinforces rather than forms my somewhat instinctive conclusions. As usual, I hope yields will be better than I predict!

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Black-grass votes to remain

Posted on 24/06/2016 by Jim Orson

We may have voted to leave the EU but black-grass has decided to remain. It is hard to generalise but for many, particularly those who have yet to grasp fully the enormity of the problem, there has been a backward step this year in its control in winter wheat. Some farmers still have a rather touching faith in what herbicides can achieve.

In many situations the pre-em/early post-em herbicides gave good control of black-grass plants in the autumn. However, the survivors grew strongly in the warm autumn/winter conditions and established more black-grasstillers than perhaps could reasonably be expected. In addition, in some areas wet soil conditions meant that crop competition was disappointing, particularly in the poorer drained parts of fields.

There are instances where just a couple of weeks delay in drilling has had a remarkable effect on black-grass populations. The critical period in many areas was when drilling had been delayed from the beginning of October to mid-October. Soils were moist and obviously there was a high emergence of black-grass during that period. Crops drilled in the middle of the month rapidly established and provided good crop competition. The later drilling would also have helped the efficacy of the herbicides.

Conditions for the spring establishment of cereals were not as favourable as in the previous four years, particularly on the really heavy soils. This resulted in later drilling dates, which may theoretically have been advantageous in terms of black-grass control. Despite the later drilling dates, there was often sufficient moisture for the soil residual grass weed herbicides. Hence, herbicide use in spring barley provided good reductions in black-grass numbers where there was good crop competition. The issue in spring wheat was the restricted herbicide options for black-grass control. This, I hope, will be rectified in the coming seasons.

Personally, I am not in favour of delaying spring drilling of cereals in order to take full advantage of black-grass emergence prior to drilling. In my opinion, it is far better to drill as soon as conditions allow in order to maximise the possibility of soils being moist for the residual herbicides and to help ensure that the spring cereal is competitive. In addition, residuals are more likely to be ‘hot’ in the warmer conditions that tend to prevail later in the spring.

For the first time in three years I am not aware of any instances of exceptional numbers of black-grass emerging in spring drilled crops. It tends to confirm my suspicion that this phenomenon was due to the cold and wet summer of 2012 resulting in ‘super-dormant’ seed being set. It seems that it has taken three seasons to clear the back-log. In parts of Eastern England the last few weeks have been cold and wet. Hopefully it will turn warmer in the near future to ensure that we do not go through the same experience again.

So what has another season’s experience taught us? I think it has confirmed that many farmers and advisers need to assess more carefully the threat of black-grass to next year’s autumn sown crops. There is no point in taking an unrealistic view of what herbicides can achieve. In many instances the background population of black-grass needs to be reduced to a level where herbicides can prevent yield loss and also provide the best chance of limiting seed returning to the soil. This means that there should be the potential of no more than 10 black-grass plants/m² (at a push 15/m²) emerging in an untreated winter cereal crop. Such numbers do not occur in an autumn sown cereal where there is so much black-grass emergence between the previous and the current crop that at least two applications of glyphosate are required in order to prevent emerged black-grass plants reducing further emergence through competition (no, it is not allelopathy). In such situations, winter or spring drilling are the only options.

All farmers and advisers are aware of the cultural options available and attention to detail is essential, such as estimating where in the soil profile the majority of the viable black-grass seed lies. This should help to guide the choice of type and depth of cultivation required. All approaches should be considered, including hand and chemical roguing.

I constantly witness the value of the strategic use of the plough. Now, please do not get back to me and say that ploughing would ruin the soil after many years of adoption of non-plough tillage. I have never seen any trials or field evidence to support such a statement. All options have to be considered!

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World hunger continues to fall

Posted on 10/06/2016 by Jim Orson

I cannot remember the exact year when I spoke at a large conference on the possible introduction of GM crops into the UK. It was perhaps the final year or two of the last century. After contacting a few aid charities I felt able to say with confidence that the number of undernourished people in the world was falling. However, I mentioned my concern that in Northern Europe we had almost exhausted the potentials of pesticides and crop nutrition. This was the main premise of my support for GM crops.

The statement that the number of undernourished people in the world was falling seemed to enrage the green groups present. I still do not know exactly why but shortly after my talk they posted reports on the web saying that I was wrong. However, as usual, they produced no evidence. I can only assume that they wanted to present conventional farming as failing to feed the world.

There is now a great database on the web that allows me, as well as the green blob, to obtain a more precise guide. This database is faostat3 produced by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. All the data in this blog is as presented in faostat3.

This confirms that the number of undernourished people in the world was indeed falling at the time of my talk (see the first figure). The period covered in this figure (1991-2015) was a time of rapid expansion of the world population which meant that the proportion of undernourished people was falling more rapidly than the absolute numbers indicate. Unfortunately, the numbers rose in the early years of this century before falling significantly over the last ten years or so.

What is more heartening is the fact that the world food supply, in terms of Kcalories per person per day, is still rising significantly (second figure).

The third figure shows (in millions of tonnes) that the world wheat production continues to rise. The area of wheat grown in the world has remained roughly the same since 1975 and so the increase in production comes from improved yields (the fourth figure with yields quoted in one tenths of a tonne/ha). Over all, this is good news for the environment because the greatest environmental damage results from destroying wild vegetation in order to provide arable land.

In fact, since 1975, the annual average growth rate of the area of wheat in the world has been slightly negative whilst production and yield has increased by between one and two percent per annum (fifth figure).

The sobering fact is that much of the continued rise in wheat production has come from Asia, which accounts for about 45% of the world’s wheat production. China and India are easily the world’s top two wheat producers. Reassuringly, Africa is increasing production, in percentage terms, at a faster rate than any of the major continents (sixth figure).

With such increases in wheat production, was I too parochial when I made the argument that we needed GM to help feed the world’s future population? I believe not. Remember that GM crops were introduced in the US in 1996 and that there are currently around 180 million hectares of these crops grown annually in the world (around 14% of the world’s area used for the production of primary crops). The green blob has downplayed this amazing rate of adoption, saying that it is a failed technology. They are obviously using the same approach as in the late 1990s when they challenged conventional agriculture’s ability to reduce world hunger.

GM crops have contributed to some increases in yield, but not in wheat, but there is a lot more to come from both it and the more recently introduced biotech-based developments. We need these developments because pesticide resistance and availability are challenging our ability to maintain production at current levels. However, will we ever see the widespread introduction of GM and other biotech-based products in Europe? That is not easy to answer but significantly, the green blob are having increasing problems with the press who have realised that such approaches, properly regulated, can be a force for good.

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Where does all the nitrogen go?

Posted on 27/05/2016 by Jim Orson

I have tried cover crops on my allotment over the last year. They looked great in mid-October (see pictures), with the late-summer sown phacelia and vetch growing to an enormous size before being killed by the mild frosts of this last winter. Early-autumn sown spring oats also grew rapidly to a huge size but the winter only killed about half the plants.

The following spring-sown vegetable crops are now growing well where I dug the ground before sowing the cover crops but not where I have not dug or deep cultivated the soil for a year or two. So I have reluctantly decided that digging is still currently required before sowing or after removing the cover crops. I have also decided that the only cover crop that I will continue to grow is spring oats. The seed is cheap (well free!), establishment is more reliable and the soil is in good shape afterwards. In addition, there are no disease implications for the vegetable crops I grow.

Over the spring I have witnessed a few large scale on-farm experiences with autumn-sown cover crops. Their impact seems to have been favourable where the soil has been light enough to carry out sufficient cultivation prior to establishing spring-sown crops. A few half-field observations suggest a more vigourous spring-sown crop after cover crops. However, there is an active debate about the economic benefits of cover cropping, particularly on the heavier soils.

One intriguing aspect of autumn-sown cover crops is that they significantly reduce over-winter nitrate leaching but UK trials suggest that there is no opportunity to reduce nitrogen application to the following spring-sown crop. So what is going on? What happens to the nitrogen that has been prevented from leaching to the lower layers of the soil or to the drains?

There is a cover crop experiment in France investigating the impact of a late summer/early autumn-sown white mustard cover crop in a winter wheat, spring barley, spring pea rotation. A paper written after the first 12 years of the experiment confirms that the reduced nitrate leaching over winter does not reduce the economic optimum nitrogen dose for cereal crops. The measurements taken show that much of the nitrogen saved from leaching goes into storage in the soil organic matter.

Modelling based on the results of this and two other long-term cover crop trials in France suggest that over time, the benefit of cover crops reducing nitrate leaching decreases. However, it concludes that after twenty years or more, the economic optimum dose of nitrogen for crops can be reduced by around 20-24 kg N/ha and that this reduced dose restores much of the benefit of reduced nitrate leaching with autumn-sown cover crops.

It is worth pointing out that these long-term experiments all have non-leguminous cover crops. The nitrogen implications will no doubt be different where leguminous cover crops are adopted.

In the UK winter cropping may well have similar nitrogen dynamics to spring cropping plus autumn-sown cover crops. Hence, interpreting this French research in terms of practical implications for the UK is, to say the least, difficult. However, I am relieved that the modelling work provides the possible long-term implications for the nitrogen that is prevented from leaching over the winter by the introduction of autumn-sown cover crops and also the possible impact on nitrogen fertiliser requirements.

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