Weather, political bickering, and now a threat to barley

Today might be the beginning of a new era for local newspapers in the Borders and north Northumberland, but it’s still old worries in new guises for farmers as far as the weather, crop and animal diseases – and political bickering – are concerned.

After the past year, not much more can be said about the weather except that some day it must get warmer, but that’s unlikely to be this week.

What is surprising is that Met Office statistics up to almost the end of February show that the average temperature for the winter months was only slightly below average and milder than three out of the four previous winters.

Unconvinced by statistics and while pondering how many layers would be necessary before heading out one recent morning, I recalled that it’s now half a century since the Great Winter – in spite of some of the winters we’ve had since I still tend to think of that one in capitals – of early 1963. I spent three weeks of that in bed with glandular fever so missed some of the drudgery involved in getting hay to sheep and tractors up and down the farm road.

We were still carting kale to cattle at that time, a job that, on snow-covered, frosty mornings tends to stick in the memory. As do the ice floes coming down the Tweed in mid-March as the thaw finally began, the flooded fields and difficult drilling conditions.

Given recent temperatures, snowfalls that left Cheviot pure white, heavy weekend rain and wet fields, it’s easy to see why memories like that kick in. Yet in spite of the worst the weather can do, farmers and today’s skilled tractor drivers with their big machinery have managed to apply chemicals and fertiliser and get some crops drilled.

That’s good, because it seems likely that more spring drilling than expected might be necessary as some crops drilled during the miserable autumn have failed completely.

As it was, the December census results published last week indicate that the winter wheat area drilled in Scotland was down 15 per cent. In England it was down 25 per cent and total winter cereals were down 19 per cent.

Some winter wheat has been drilled as a spring crop this year, but that has probably been more than counteracted by the percentage of cereals and oilseed rape that have failed over the winter because of poor establishment and slug and disease damage.

In short, there’s a big area of arable land to be drilled this spring, mainly with barley. Major users of malting barley recently announced support for home-grown crops, but a lot of spring barley will still be looking for a home come August and September.

So much so that some growers have talked about leaving fields fallow. That is always a tough decision, no matter how much it might seem to make financial sense; hearts tend to rule heads about unused land.

As if worry about growing spring barley at all wasn’t big enough, plant pathologists at the Scottish Rural University College have warned of a potentially devastating form of ear-blight that will mean shrivelled grains and low yields.