Crop success after forage failure

Monitor farmer Charles Gordon standing in the second successful forage crop sown on July 27 in  a field where the previous crop had totally failed.

Monitor farmer Charles Gordon standing in the second successful forage crop sown on July 27 in a field where the previous crop had totally failed.

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Forage crop success has been snatched from the jaws of defeat by Cairngorms monitor farmers, George Gordon and his son Charles.

The Gordon family run a 1157 acre (468 ha) farming enterprise based at Lost Farm in Strathdon, 45 miles west of Aberdeen.

They recently hosted an open day attended by around 70 farmers and industry representatives.

In addition to a farm tour, updates were given on four topics which had been focal points at previous meetings – grassland/soil fertility, cow fertility, Liver Fluke and forage crops.

In late spring the Gordons had sown two fields, totalling 20 acres, with turnips.

At a meeting in June, the Gordons had shown the community group a virtually bare field of what should have been a young turnip crop. Initially the turnip seedlings had thrived but by the third week of June the crop, and weeds, had disappeared.

Some of the community group had experienced similar problems and blamed a combination of slugs, leatherjackets and weather. The group had suggested giving the crop a chance to recover. It did not.

“By early July we decided to re-sow the turnip fields with forage catch crops, but it was too wet for weeks to get onto the ground and we didn’t get the crops sown until the 27th,” explained Charles Gordon.

One of the fields had been sown with Pulsar, a kale/rape hybrid variety, the other with a mixture of stubble turnips and kale/rape hybrid. Both crops received 213 kg/ha (1.7 cwt to the acre) of 21.08.12 at sowing, and have thrived.

Peter Addie of Watson Seeds, who supplied the seed for the second crop, explained some of the characteristics of forage brassicas.

“With catch crops there is a definite growing period, usually about 16 weeks, after which there is no further growth. So in a year of normal weather, it’s worth aiming for a sowing date which ensures the crop is at its maximum feed value when utilisation is planned,” said Mr Addie.

“Forage brassicas have a long tap root, which helps to break up the soil pan, with root hairs growing from this tap root. The root hairs take in nutrients from the soil to feed the plant, and to do this efficiently, they need oxygen. If the root hairs are waterlogged, as many have been this year, they are starved of oxygen and nutrient intake does not happen, therefore the plants will not thrive.

“Soil compaction also reduces the amount of oxygen in the soil around the root hairs, inhibiting plant growth.”

Prior to the re-sow, the land was power-harrowed, to reduce compaction. Nevertheless, it was clear that plants in the compacted headlands as well as in wet hollows, had not thrived as well as others.

Peter Addie explained that by mixing rape/kale with stubble turnips, the grazing period is extended, with stock eating the leafy crops first, followed by the bulbs of the turnips.

He recommended sowing larger bulbed varieties of stubble turnip, e.g. Samson or Delilah for use pre-Christmas. Smaller, more hardy varieties, e.g. Rondo or White Star were more suited to later in the season.

Peter Addie also told the group that forage crops are susceptible to Flea Beetle, but thanks to the Gordons having re-sown their forage crops in late July, an un-anticipated benefit had been that the worst of the Flea Beetle threat was past.

The Gordons are understandably relieved that what had been 20 acres of failed crop in late July, now promises excellent winter feed for their stock.

“I’ve been really impressed with the performance of the catch crops,” said Charles Gordon. “Maybe next year, we’ll reduce the turnip acreage and veer more towards forage rape and kale.”

The next Cairngorms monitor farm meeting will be held on Thursday, 25th October when the topic will be “Getting ready for tupping.”

For general information on monitor farms, plus detailed reports of meetings www.qmscotland.co.uk/monitorfarms.