Winter beans performed better than expected in 2012, even though conditions weren’t in their favour. Louise Impey gets an update just ahead of drilling of next year’s crops.
Higher seed rates, an earlier sowing date and a comprehensive fungicide programme. That’s how one Suffolk farming business has altered its approach to growing winter beans, in an effort to increase yields and overcome agronomic challenges.
As a result, grower David Johnson believes this year’s crop of Wizard winter beans will generate the same gross margin as his winter wheat, having produced a yield in excess of 5t/ha.
“We’re very pleased with the way they’ve performed,” he says. “In terms of gross income, they will come below wheat. But because the crop needs fewer inputs, the gross margins will be very similar.”
His switch to higher seed rates was prompted by the lack of herbicides available. “We’re trying to use crop competition to give us weed suppression, as the chemical options in beans are so limited. It only works well with the shorter strawed types, otherwise there’s a danger of them becoming too tall.”
That’s why varieties from the Wherry’s breeding programme are grown, mostly for seed. “We’ve grown both Sultan and Wizard in this way. They’re less risky than the taller types.”
He aims to have the crop drilled by the end of September and uses a seed rate of 32 seeds/sq m. Work by NIAB TAG, showing a yield response from higher seed rates and a yield decline as the drilling date got delayed, convinced him to alter his crop management accordingly.
“We ended up with a plant population of 27 plants/sq m this year,” he says.
His preferred establishment method is to get a contractor to subsoil the beans in. “It’s worked well here for the past three years. There aren’t any pre-cultivations to do and it’s quick and easy, with a single pass.”
Fungicide use was higher than normal during 2012, admits Mr Johnson, but no greater than it was for other crops. “We made four applications in total. Chocolate spot and mildew pressure were high, due to the rain, so we had no choice, especially with the plant numbers we had.”
Bruchid beetle control required two sprays, which is normal procedure. “That kept them out pretty well and gave us the quality.”
Winter beans perform a vital break crop role on the heavier soils at Lodge Farm, although they have to compete with others, he acknowledges. “We have started growing oilseed rape as well, as it allows us to use different herbicides and extend the gap between bean crops.
“However, the beans are a better entry for wheat and are still one of the cheapest crops to grow.”
Winter bean crop in Kent
The 2012 performance of winter beans for one grower in Kent couldn’t have been more different to the previous year.
“They can be an unpredictable crop,” says William Alexander. “We’ve had our worst year and our best yields in the space of just 12 months. But we’ve also had two very different growing seasons in that time.”
His 2012 crop of Wizard produced a final yield of 4t/ha, despite high disease pressure and a lack of sunshine in June. “I’m fairly sure the yield would have been even better if we’d had more sun.”
Even so, pod numbers were very good, he reports. “The weather conditions must have been right during the pollination period and then the subsequent rain kept feeding them.”
Mr Alexander’s variety choice was Wizard, grown on contract for pulse specialists Wherry & Sons. The crop was drilled on 20 October, in good conditions, establishing evenly at the right plant population.
“The beans got off to a good start, but crucially they didn’t get too tall before the winter,” he recalls.
Grown on the farm’s medium to heavy loam soils, to give them protection against dry summers, the crop was established following a minimum tillage operation, using a Horsch drill, placing the seed at a depth of 5cm.
“We’ve used this establishment system for a couple of years now,” says Mr Alexander.
Weed control was done with pre-emergence herbicides, using a mixture of Edge (propyzamide) and Lingo (clomazone + linuron). That took care of early emerging weeds and kept the crop clean until it was competitive.
“There were some polygonums in the bottom of the crop, but otherwise the results were good.”
Chocolate spot required three fungicides in total – two in May and another in mid-June. The latter coincided with one of the two applications used for bruchid beetle control. “We were able to hold the chocolate spot with this programme.”
Mr Alexander is planning to grow beans again this year. “Our rotation was getting too tight with oilseed rape and we don’t grow peas any more. The beans work well on our heavier land and they certainly earned their keep in 2012.”