Oakley: A Month in the Life of a Wheat Plant

As promised, I am going to try to outline the process that a grain of seed wheat (and the plant that it becomes) is undergoing at the time of any particular issue over the coming year. Please understand that I am not an agronomist so my explanations may not be perfect!

An arable farming year is like the school year, running from September to August and everything is now starting all over again. The oilseed rape harvest was on time and the following seedbed preparation through the wet August was close to ideal. The first wheats (in the three crop rotation that we grow) could therefore be drilled in those fields on time in the middle of September. If you walk the footpaths at the top of Crackle Hill you will have seen those crops ‘through’ and flourishing in the warm October sun. Because the wheat harvest was late due to the rain, the second wheats (wheat after wheat) are only just being sown as I write.

Modern wheat varieties are hybrids, the result of extensive breeding trials and varietal crossing. We are growing a variety called ‘Oakley’ whose ‘parentage’ is Claire x Robigus, two older varieties, giving some similar traits and some improvements in yield and expected disease resistance. ‘Oakley’ is one of the highest yielding wheat varieties available at the moment. It is not suitable for bread making and goes into animal feed as one of its main energy nutrients.

Part of our wheat acreage last year was ‘Oakley’ grown to be sold to a merchant for seed, so in a normal year, having had the crop tested for a satisfactory germination %, we would retain some and have it ‘dressed’ by a specialist contractor. This process would remove small and broken grains, dust and any small bits of straw. At the same time the seed can be coated with a chemical, chosen to guard against particular fungal diseases and pests that may be prevalent at planting time. Weighed bags of seed are then ready to use on farm. The wet August and delayed harvest meant that we were not confident that our seed would have a high enough germination to be used, and we would not know in time to secure supplies if it wasn’t good enough. So we bought in seed grown elsewhere through one of the agricultural merchants we trade with.

We call the seeding process ‘drilling’ as the seeds are planted in drill rows around 1 “ deep in fine soil with 60 – 70 kgs of seed sown per acre. The higher seed rate will be used where the conditions are less than ideal and therefore there is more chance of poor germination once planting takes place; or when drilling is later than optimum and more plants are required to provide the same number of tillers (shoots that will bear an ear) in the spring. (More of that in a later issue)

Good seed bed preparation is critical, in getting the crop off to the best start, as any allotment gardener will know. ‘Oakley’ will need moisture, a fine seed bed and no compaction in the soil below. Patience, experience and skill combine in deciding what prior cultivations are necessary and when is the best time to drill. The drilling window opens in mid September and effectively closes at the end of October, though technically ‘Oakley’ would still grow if sown as late as January. The yield reduction however, would be counterproductive and on our heavy clay soils the wet cold field conditions would be far from ideal.

‘Oakley’ is dormant at harvest though the plant it grew on died. Once it is settled and in contact with the soil, ‘Oakley’ needs enough moisture to soak through the seed husk and trigger the enzyme process that will start the growth of root and then shoot. Ideally the combination of good weather and the skill of the farmer ensures the optimum start for ‘Oakley’ to survive the winter and be a big strong boy in the spring!

Hay or Straw?

In the last few fine days before the August deluge started, bailing of Winter barley was taking place. It is always a bit confusing about what is being baled. Generally speaking, hay, which is dried grass cut whilst still alive, is a shade of green; which shade depends on how quickly it has dried and how mature the grass is when cut. It is usually cut in early to mid June with a second cut possibly taken in late July. The stubble will still look like grass and be faintly green and not showing in rows. Hay is used as livestock feed

Straw from cereal crops, on the other hand, is generally yellow/gold if winter barley to pale buff if wheat. The stems have died as the grain ripens off. The stubble is the same colour as the straw and the drilled rows should still be evident in the stubble. Winter barley straw can be used as low quality feed but needs a lot of nutritional supplementation. It is most commonly used for livestock bedding.

Harvest Thanksgiving

It’s good to see Harvest Thanksgiving services still being held at church and school. For many urban communities these may well now be seen as irrelevant, certainly in their traditional format. It is no bad thing for everyone to recognise the connection between the food on our plates and seed time and harvest; and for Christians to give thanks for God’s creative input and bounty, in field, garden and hedgerow. It is good also to remember the responsibility we have to share out of our harvest with those who have none or not enough.

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