As the UK blackgrass plague spreads ever further, so we arable farmers are forced to second guess the weather by delaying the drilling of our autumn sown cereal crops to the last possible moment. The past two years have produced two consecutive dry autumns, but what will happen when we get a really wet October?
How merrily, in my farming youth, did I used to start my autumn drilling of cereals in mid September, content in the knowledge that I could bring a fearsome battery of residual and contact herbicides to bear on any sterile brome that might dare poke its head up! New and effective herbicides were invented as quickly as the grasses developed resistance to the old ones, and I took it for granted that science would always stay at least one step ahead of grass weed pests.
This complacency on my part lasted until the 1990s when it suddenly dawned on me that my wheat and winter barley yields hadn’t risen for at least a decade, and that patches of blackgrass in my fields were becoming ever more familiar and expanding. And this was happening no matter what herbicides or witches brew of herbicides I used against it.
Then, as we all piled on more and more agrichemicals in ever more elaborate tank mixes in a losing battle against blackgrass, water companies began to notice unacceptable levels of herbicide residues in drinking water. This then set in train a process of weedkillers being withdrawn from the market as the regulatory authorities refused to license an ever wider range of active ingredients.
So, now I find myself almost back to where my grandfather was 80 years ago, before herbicides were even invented, too fearful to plant an autumn crop until the last possible moment in case warm soil conditions produce a high germination of weeds that I cannot then control.
His weather starting gun in the autumn was when the horses pulling the zigzag harrow would collect mud on their hooves rather than shake off their dust. At that point he had left the sowing of the crop as long as he dared.
Of course he had one big advantage over me in terms of waiting until the last possible moment before starting the autumn drilling – he grew six acres of grain and could hand broadcast that and horse harrow it in a single afternoon.