The Importance of Water

Our crops really get up a head of steam in May and early June before the ear emerges and it starts the ripening process. Mark continues to apply nutrients to optimize this growth and to spray to try and keep on top of fungal diseases which would otherwise reduce the plants’ ability to maximize the available soil moisture and sunlight. Difficult weeds that could compete with the crop have already been dealt with over winter and in early spring.

However it doesn’t matter how competent one is and how much attention to detail is given, without sunlight and water a cereal plant is doomed to fail.

Which takes me back to the old saying I mentioned last month about when the Oak breaks leaf before the Ash  -which it did quite markedly this year-  we’ll only get a splash. Father has kept rainfall figures for as long as I can remember and based on these for April we only had 1 inch of rain in the month and 6 inches so far this year, which extrapolates to only 18 for the year.

Our average annual rainfall here is around 22 to 23 inches, ranging from just over 16 inches in 1975 and 1976 up to over 30 inches in 1992. There are desert areas in the world that have almost as much rainfall as we do, the difference being that ours is generally spread out little and often throughout the year, rather than in one or two ferocious downpours. Incidentally I have a friend who recently moved out to Auckland in New Zealand. He wrote last week to say that they had had a wet day with just under an inch of rain but a place on the mountainous west coast of the South Island had 38 inches in 48 hours !

My instinct confirms the Oak / Ash saying that this year will be drier than usual which could well stress the crops, particularly the spring sown wheat. If so, then good soil structure is critical to minimize this stress so that roots can go deep in search of moisture. Yield is simply a factor of two things for each acre sown; total grain numbers and the weight of a given volume of grain. Plump grain weighs more heavily than shriveled grain.

So rainfall interspersed with sunshine is key to a successful harvest yield. But rainfall during harvest, which we had too much of last year, when the plant is no longer needing moisture, is not welcome. We’re a fussy lot ! Perversely in the UK a dry summer usually but not always means a hot summer. We all know the grey days that affect Eastern England particularly when we see neither sun nor rain.

On a global scale the availability of fresh water ( as opposed to salt sea water ) is becoming a critical issue for those who predict international affairs. The demand for an increasingly scarce resource to irrigate food crops, and the increasing consumption for meat – it takes about 15 cubic metres of water to produce 1 kg of beef compared to 1 – 3 cu m for 1 kg of cereals – is likely to cause tension and even hostilities between countries that share water sources.

Next time you ( and I ) mutter darkly about rain spoiling our plans, think positively about it as a vital part of farming life . . . and therefore your life !

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