Black-grass challenges: Huntingdon Monitor Farm

The challenges thrown up by farming never cease to amaze me and the expression ‘no two years are the same’ couldn’t be more apt from some of this spring’s experiences in more ways than one, and not just on the practical side of farming.

For anyone that has journeyed down the A14 in recent weeks it won’t have gone unnoticed that black-grass has stormed through crops in recent weeks, even after huge spends on herbicide programmes and people doing the right thing with delayed autumn drilling.

Unfortunately black-grass is the unwanted gift that just keeps on giving.  It is a pugnacious weed that continues to evolve and adapt to its surroundings and the mild winter we have experienced coupled with a cold spring meant that herbicides ran out of steam and crops didn’t have an early competitive edge due to cold and slow growing conditions.  It is bitterly disappointing when you have done all the right things and the realisation hits home about how important rotation and crop choice is in battling potentially the biggest threat to arable production in the eastern counties.

black-grass spoiling wheat

Above: Black-grass spoiling a decent wheat crop

To me, the prospect of farming without glyophosate in a black-grass situation is unthinkable and virtually impossible. Without it, cropping land in certain parts of the UK could become a thing of the past.

Last year we had some great conditions post winter cover crops for spring drilling and this year have been wetter than we would have liked, but overall we have seen some excellent establishment, especially after fitting better lower disturbance points on the sprinter drill.  Spring barley has got away evenly and looks well as it progresses though ear emergence and spring beans have also established exceptionally well after cover crops.  We are still learning and are now starting to really tease out what cover mixes work for us and which ones don’t. I think it would be fair to say if it was your first year of growing cover crops, this spring would have been a baptism of fire!

KWS Irina spring barley direct drilled after an over winter cover crop.

Above:  KWS Irina spring barley direct drilled after an over winter cover crop.

Wheat crops generally look well apart from where black-grass is spoiling them and it has been clear from trials that it looks like fungicide programmes will be worth their money this year as the untreated plots look horrendous in some varieties in what is a real yellow rust year.

As we head towards the tail end of the season focus turns to varieties, rotations and black-grass mapping and with the challenges ahead, let us hope that science and common sense prevail to allow us to retain and keep using the essential chemical tools to continue farming to the best of our ability.

Read AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds information on weed management

The summer open day at Huntingdon Monitor Farm will be held on 23 June at Hoo Farm. Anyone interested in attending should email Tim Isaac,



Russell McKenzie farms 750ha on predominantly heavy clay on the border between Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire. He grows seed on contract as well as soft and feed wheat, and his usual rotation is wheat, OSR and spring beans. A Nuffield Scholar, Russ has been researching direct drilling in extreme weather in 2013 and 2014.

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