28 May 1999

AGENDA 2000:DONT BE RASH

What impact might Agenda

2000 have on your arable

enterprises? A leading

agronomist explains

the key cropping issues to

Brian Lovelidge

AVOIDING dramatic changes to cropping policy in response to Agenda 2000s revised area aid payments is probably the best response for most growers.

Where a switch to more cereals is thought necessary, higher production costs need watching, warns ProCam Agricultures technical officer, Helen Allen.

Unless fixed costs are well above average revised area aid payments will have relatively little impact on profit, says Ms Allen.

Her views are based largely on the data produced by her companys computerised farm recording scheme, ProCam CMS (Crop Management System). That covers 17,200ha (42,500 acres) and has been running for six years.

Its results show that winter wheat and winter oilseed rape (WOSR) produced the highest gross margins last year. The top 25% of growers in the scheme averaged over £800/ha (£324/acre) for WOSR and £723/ha (£293/acre) for winter wheat.

Those growers whose gross margins easily exceed average fixed costs of £500/ha (£202/acre) with their existing rotations of say predominantly first wheat, winter oilseed rape and beans, should be able to maintain profitability when Agenda 2000 comes into force, predicts Ms Allen.

Growers start coming unstuck when their fixed costs are above average. To keep afloat they have two options:

&#8226 Significantly reduce fixed costs, ideally to around £370/ha (£150/acre), and thus have the luxury of more flexible and better balanced cropping.

&#8226 Grow longer runs of winter wheat.

Growing more cereals and the occasional oilseed rape might be the most cost-effective answer, she says. But potential agronomic challenges will require extra inputs.

"The main problems of growing longer runs of wheat are the build-up of eyespot and take-all, more difficult blackgrass control and getting the whole crop harvested and drilled on time," she says.

Potential yield loss

"On top of these is the potential yield loss of 10-15% after the third successive cereal crop, even if disease is well controlled."

The answer for eyespot will be the routine inclusion of Unix (cyprodinil) in the T1 spray, partnered by a reduced rate triazole, she advises. With a practical dose of 0.6kg/ha of Unix costing £22.23/ha (£9/acre), that could increase T1 fungicide costs to about £39.50/ha (£16/acre).

Take-all, potentially the biggest yield sapper, should be much less troublesome than it was, thanks to the launch of seed treatments by AgrEvo and Monsanto in the near future. Both are claimed to control the disease very well. Their use will have to be routine from the third wheat onwards or right from the start for crops in fields with a history of the disease, says Ms Allen.

Manufacturers are so far cagey about prices, apart from saying both products will cost more than conventional seed dressings. AgrEvos fluquinconazole dressing is expected to be the most expensive, because its disease spectrum is broader.

For long runs of wheat the T2 and T3 fungicides sprays may cost no more than usual, she says, although in theory foliar and ear diseases could be worse.

The main weed threat will be the development of herbicide-resistant blackgrass. That has tended to happen more quickly than normal on continuous cereal fields, she asserts.

If resistance is of the more widespread target site or fop and dim type, it will require the use of herbicides with different modes of action such as the Lexus (flupyrsulfuron-methyl) products, Avadex (tri-allate) and the residuals.

"With fop and dim resistance you would probably have to spend an extra £25/ha initially because the use of sequences would be necessary," says Ms Allen.

Where break crops are eliminated or reduced in number, fertiliser inputs may have to be maintained at those necessary for a second winter wheat. There will be less room for error in deciding how much nitrogen to apply, but the amount of residual nitrogen year on year may be more consistent, says Ms Allen.

Soil structure

In addition the maintenance of good soil structure will require more attention, partly because with long runs of cereals there is less scope for spreading the workload and so autumn operations must be completed irrespective of the weather. The result could be greater soil damage, so more regular sub-soiling or rotational ploughing, say every three or four years, may be necessary.

Ms Allen points out that switching from ploughing to minimal cultivations or direct drilling could help reduce the high peak workload problem and potential soil structure damage at a stroke and also cut tractor and fuel costs by up to £74/ha (£30/acre).

"Without the benefits of break crops, after three successive wheats yields would be depressed by around 15%, even where take-all is controlled by seed dressings," says Ms Allen.

"So growers in the bottom third of the fixed costs league who decide to go for long runs of cereals to improve their financial position would still be hard pressed to get into profit." What would considerably help them and the 40% or more above them is to lift their gross margin performance nearer to the top 25%. &#42