Black grass is like Brexit – you have to think differently

CLA member Tom Martin, who sits on the Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire Committee, shares his views on the battle with black grass and the impact on harvest.

Every generation has its nemesis weed. It would have been wild oats 15-20 years ago, before that it would probably have been cleavers and before that something else. For us at this time it is black grass. Black grass is a bit like Brexit in that you have got to think differently – you can’t just carry on as you did before. You have to address the issue, be innovative, and actually a lot of the time revert back to techniques from 50-60 years ago, before the answer came in a can.

Our land can grow about nine tonnes per hectare of wheat. Last year I was combining a field yielding about eight to nine tonnes per hectare, but then I’d hit the black grass and the yield meter would drop to four tonnes. That is the impact black grass has. If you are making a tonne to the hectare profit, at say £100–£120, you go from making a one tonne profit to effectively making a three tonne loss. It can be devastating.

Tom Martin

The way to fight the war on black grass is to know your enemy. 80-90 percent of seeds germinate in the autumn and only 10-20 percent germinate in the spring, and so our best defence is using spring cropping (crops sown in spring time) as well as our traditional autumn-sown ones. Black grass generally only germinates when it is in the first top half an inch of the soil so if the seed is buried and not brought up by tilling or ploughing then you can leave it underground until it dies off after some years. 

We haven’t used a plough on the land for 15-years – which is ironic when you hear ‘we plough the fields and scatter’ sung at harvest festivals. We don’t plough the fields and we don’t scatter. We direct drill which possibly doesn’t conjure the same nostalgic image of the countryside.

All our farming decisions are heavily influenced by black grass. We are minimum tillage and looking to reduce that to no till at all. We consider blackgrass in the sprays we use, the rotations that we have, in the way we use livestock, and in the way that we apply nutrients and maintain our machinery. 

Drainage is another important factor. Black grass can cope with wet and boggy conditions, so we work on keeping our heavy clay soils as free-draining as possble, which people often forget to do. Our agronomist says that when people are struggling financially it is often the first thing that is forgotten, but it is probably the most important thing. Ultimately, we are trying to make the soil healthier so that it favours our wheat crops.

I heard a very good quote recently that said: “If you are ‘learned’ then you are perfectly equipped to deal with a situation that was in the past, but if you are a ‘learner’ then you are constantly working towards dealing with situations in the future”.  I think you can apply that to farming.

It is great to have an understanding of what has happened in the past as things come round again and you can deal with certain conditions. But if you stop learning, all you’ll ever be good at is dealing with is the last harvest – and your last harvest is definitely not going to be the same as this harvest. And future harvests will be different again.  Change is constant.

For around two generations the answer to a problem like black grass has been found in a can but even the big spray companies – that make their money from selling chemicals – now say the answer is not in a can. Spraying herbicides should be your last resort.

So as harvest moves into full swing in the next few weeks I will be monitoring the impact of black grass once again. I will be studying the differences and improvements that we have made to the harvest this year and investigating where and why things haven’t gone exactly to plan. It is a challenge, but in farming there are always lessons to learn and things to be done differently. You can’t predict the future, but you can prepare for it.

37-year old Tom Martin manages a mixed farm near Peterborough. His crops are predominately winter and spring wheat, oilseed rape, linseed and spring barley. He returned to family farm two years ago following a successful career in sales with Universal Pictures and latterly selling film rights globally. Follow him on twitter @Farmer_Tom_UK.

 Photo credit: Lisa Martin.