Drought Tolerant Crops – Crops To Get You Through A Heatwave

If one thought it even possible, the last few years suggest English weather is becoming even more unpredictable. Longer spells of no rain, heavier rain, hotter days, more sunshine, less sunshine – all making the job of growing game cover crops (and any other crops for that matter) ever more challenging.

The year 2020 alone has been a strange and record-breaking year with regards to weather; and a few other unusual occurrences. February 2020 was the UK’s wettest February on record dating back to 1862 – overall, the UK had 209.1mm of rain which is 237% of the February average. Just three months later, and the UK was experiencing its driest May on record and its sunniest Spring since 1929! This followed last July’s highest recorded temperature in the UK of 37.8C. Judging by this, its reasonable to say conditions are becoming more challenging.

However, we are here to help and give advice wherever we can, and following the recent scorching temperatures, one of our senior advisors, Ben Dolbear, thought it would be a good idea to give a few pointers on how to prepare and what to plant if a lack of rainfall is a concern.

Weather Concerns

As most will be aware, prolonged spells of hot and dry weather results in a crop not getting enough water. Rainfall is essential for all crops, but it is the timing of the rainfall, or the planting, that can be of the most critical importance.

If crops have already been established and the roots have got down into some moisture then they will often be ok – even if there is a dry period afterwards. It is when crops are planted and it becomes dry that creates the greater risk, as it means them not getting away. The crop can be more exposed to pests such as Flea Beetle, or there is a risk that the seed will go into moisture, germinate and then just sit there – sometimes leading to the crop dying.

This year offered a particularly difficult set of challenges with the weather going from being very wet in February to very dry in April and May – the change made it especially difficult for early sown game cover crops and mainstream crops as there was only a small window to work in.

Drought Tolerant Options

If lack of rainfall is a concern then there are certain varieties that can be looked upon more favourably – and if thought about ahead of time the problem of drought can be overcome.

One option is to plant perennial crops such as Reed Canary Grass or Chicory as these have a large planting window, they can go in from May to August. One thing we are seeing is people starting to throw some perennials in with an annual mixture during Spring sowing. However, remember that it is important a nurse crop is used in the first year, as there won’t be any cover for the first year from the perennials. But it is a good way of insuring yourself for the following year and eliminating the risk of drought.

Sorghum is another good option if there is concern around lack of rainfall. Sorghum is an annual crop that is traditionally suited to more tropical climates. Although it will struggle with zero moisture, it does prefer the warmer weather. This is the same with maize. If you can get these in in the Spring when there is enough moisture to get them away they will thrive in warmer weather. Another benefit of Sorghum is that it is less susceptible to pests which means it can sit for longer.

Things to Avoid

If there is major concern about a long, hot dry spell – or if there is only a small area of land available and you don’t want this to fail due to lack of rain – we advise caution with brassicas, unless there can be certainty regarding establishment. The main risk with brassicas is a failure to ‘get away’ having germinated – the likely consequence is Flea Beetle destruction.

Flea Beetle reproduce rapidly if the weather is good, but rain will slow the process. Too much rain, however, gives rise to slugs: a typical conundrum of growing conditions.

Furthermore,  brassicas trying to grow through dry conditions not only have to compete with Flea Beetle but also, at that time of year, the barley and other cereal crops have not quite matured meaning other pests, such as pigeons, are looking for water (moisture). At that time of year pigeons are short of water and are very partial to a nice lush green leaf and a small flock can decimate any brassica cover crop. This generally stops just as the barley heads start to turn plum and cheesy in which case they move onto them.

Seed Bed Preparation

Seedbed and establishment technique – whether rain or shine – is as important as anything when it comes to getting successful cover, and it can make a huge difference in retaining moisture.

Timing of your seedbed prep is key. If you are still ploughing, plough early so that the moisture goes deeper. This can often be a problem with game cover as the ground needs ploughing when people are still shooting. Follow the plough with a cultivator or press to try and retain as much moisture underneath as possible. Or ensure that the cultivation and drilling operations are as close together as possible – almost following each other across the field.

Alternatively, strip till and direct drilling can both have a big part to play because the area can be worked and the seed placed, whilst only moving a small amount of soil. This creates a channel for the seed and, with only a small amount of soil being moved, ensures it is not opened up and dried out.

It cannot be denied that conditions are becoming more challenging, but with the right advice, the right establishment techniques and thinking ahead; these conditions can be overcome. If you have any questions at all on subjects covered in this blog, or anything more general, then please don’t hesitate to contact us here!