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Weighing up drilling dates

With growers eager to plant winter cereal crops to avoid a potential repeat of last year, agronomist Andrew Pendry advises on some key watch-outs for early drilling of winter wheat.

Andrew Pendry, agronomist for the south east

“The wet autumn of 2019 saw many of the winter crops struggle to establish, if planted at all. So it’s no wonder that growers are keen to get wheat into the ground earlier this season. 

Weighing up the risk of potential bad weather if drilling is delayed, versus blackgrass, pest and disease pressure from going early, will be playing on the minds of many. 

For those who believe that early drilling is the way to go, considerations need to be made to ensure that the crop stands a chance of establishing.

Assess soil conditions

First off, start with a spade and assess what condition your soils are in. Many will be very tight or slumped after last year’s wet weather. If this isn’t addressed, it will prevent crops from establishing evenly, causing  poor rooting and reducing the ability to take up water and essential nutrients. 

A product such as Liquid Gypsum can help in this scenario. As well as being a useful source of calcium and sulphur, it helps to improve soil structure whilst balancing calcium-magnesium ratios, particularly in tight high magnesium soils.

This then leads to cultivation choice – if you’re operating a system with direct drilling and your soil conditions are ok, then don’t add in recreational cultivations. There’s simply no need and in fact, you could cause unnecessary issues. 

Grassweed problems 

If you do have a grassweed problem, then you really need to consider whether early drilling is for you. Stale seedbeds play a valuable role in enabling the weeds to chit and be sprayed off ahead of planting the crop. It’s also important to retain moisture in these seedbeds and then cultivate to the correct depth dependent on soil structure.

Optimum drilling depth

Thinking about optimum drilling depth as well as seed-to-soil contact is crucial all round really. This ensures the correct seed depth for safe use of pre-emergence products. Pre-em applications will be boosted further with good levels of soil moisture, which can be conserved through rolling. 

If you can apply your pre-ems directly after rolling, on-farm trials have shown how much more effective they can be. So timing is key, even if you have to stop drilling – which are certainly brave words!”