PUSH GROUP 2 variety Solstice hard to make the milling quality grade, but consider carefully whether to chase premiums on other Group 2 varieties. That is the advice from independent agronomists for this spring.

Consider both the price you paid for nitrogen and variety, says Shropshire-based independent farm adviser Bryce Rham.

“There was a whole range of prices paid for nitrogen during 2004,” he notes. “But if you purchased your fertiliser earlier on last year, it probably cost around 114/t. Now, it is closer to 150/t.”

Solstice is the one Group 2 variety he singles out as worth investing in: “It”s virtually a Group 1. The millers like it and will be willing to pay a premium for 13% grain protein.”

Cuts in Group 1 area over the past three years is another good reason for pushing Solstice, he says. “The potential supply situation means millers are going to need Solstice to meet their demand.”

Nitrogen rates should be made according to varietal requirements to achieve the desired protein, he says. “Generally, to achieve the required protein level growers will have to be considering in excess of 200kg/ha, sometimes well in excess. Consult the breeder”s recommendation to fine-tune rates.”

But RB209 must be used as a guide to rates, he says. “Higher rates have to be justified. If you contravene the NVZ regulations, you are also contravening the terms of cross-compliance. That could have serious financial implications.”

The most popular Group 2 variety in his region is Einstein. “Where it is being grown on contract, you are almost committed to chasing a premium, especially if you bought your nitrogen at the lower end of the price scale,” says Mr Rham.

But where Einstein is being grown for yield, it is a different story. “Growers did get a 10-12 premium on the better quality samples in 2004. If you”ve paid the higher nitrogen price, that would be very useful again. But in theory, nitrogen rates will have to come back a bit now that the price has gone up.”

A 3:1 ratio between the price of nitrogen and the price of wheat is the economic balance. “When it”s at 4:1, nitrogen use should be reduced by 15-20kg/ha.”

Herts-based independent agronomist Peter Taylor says much depends on the premium available. “We won”t be chasing premiums with either Einstein or Cordiale, but it may be worth it with Solstice,” he agrees.

He does not envisage using foliar nitrogen this year. “We”ll be aiming to make adequate use of bagged nitrogen. Foliar treatments are just going to be too expensive.”

Mr Taylor will also be advising growers to bias the amounts of nitrogen applied to the later doses. “I”ll be recommending three splits. Half of the total amount will be split between the first two applications, while the remaining half will go on late in the last application. We”ll be delaying for as long as we dare.” Growers should cut the amount of nitrogen applied to Group 3 and 4 varieties, he adds. “Bring rates back a bit, but only by 5-10kg/ha.”

Knowing soil mineral nitrogen levels will be important this spring, he stresses. “Crops are green, as mineralisation has kept going all winter. So we”ll need to get a handle for what”s in the soil so that we can fine-tune application rates.”

Lincs-based independent agronomist Bridget Carroll says quality wheats are rare in the coastal parts of Lincolnshire, as the climate affects Hagberg Falling Number.

“Growers don”t expect to get premiums, so we don”t set out with them in mind,” she says.

Huge price rises mean nitrogen will need to be used carefully, she says. “But nitrogen is a very cost- effective input.”

Hold off applying nitrogen until March, she advises. “Crops were drilled thicker this year and they have grown all through the winter. They won”t need an early boost.”

Where Group 1s Hereward and Malacca are being grown, Ms Carroll suggests using either foliar urea or bagged nitrogen at flag leaf. “You need the inputs. Margins will be too tight without a premium.”