Arnolds Keys - Irelands Agricultural land agent and associate James Hill explores why farmers might consider a spring fallow period this year.

You don’t need a meteorologist to know that this winter has been particularly wet. Heavy rainfall throughout the past three months shows little sign of abating – and that has obviously had a serious effect on winter crops.

As a result, many farmers are now considering drilling spring barley to make up the shortfall in income. But is this a good policy or could it end up costing even more in the long term?

Eastern Daily Press: Arnolds Keys - Irelands Agricultural land agent and associate James HillArnolds Keys - Irelands Agricultural land agent and associate James Hill (Image: Arnolds Keys)

Tempting though it is to get a crop into the ground, for many farms the state of the soil suggests caution. Compacted soil may have impeded drainage, while flooding could have washed away the phosphorous and nitrogen-rich topsoil necessary for a spring crop to thrive – which could mean increased input costs will be needed to guarantee the success of any spring crops which are planted.

Once the flood waters have subsided, soil testing may well be necessary, especially if winter crops are still in the ground and have been lost. The roots of such crops can produce gases such as methane and nitrous oxide in the soil, as well as a build-up of ethylene, which could impede the germination of any new crops drilled too soon. Oxygen levels could be low as well, with the resulting decrease in earthworm numbers.

What’s more, farmers won’t be alone in considering drilling spring barley, and that means that the output cost probably won’t be anything to get excited about. What’s more, spring barley seed costs have rocketed due to tight supply which further erodes the bottom line. It is not worth risking the health of your soil for a derisory return, and certainly not if a spring crop is going to end up making a loss.

Though it goes against the grain to leave land unproductive, it is worth considering a spring fallow period to enable the soil to recover in time for the growing wheat later in the year. If the weather allows the soil to rejuvenate quickly enough, there may be time to consider a catch crop such as mustard as a stopgap during the summer.

Hard though it is, the excessive rainfall this winter requires patience. Long-term soil health should be the goal. The soil is every farm’s primary asset; nurturing it is vital for a sustainable future, even if this requires the patience of a saint in resisting the temptation to turn to short-term quick-fixes which could be very expensive in the long run.

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