5 January 2001

Beware when saving on inputs

ARABLE farms could make useful savings this season to counter the current gloom, according to two independent consultants. But crops need careful monitoring to ensure output is not jeopardised, they warn.

Hants-based Seumas Foster of the Association of Independent Crop Consultants says low commodity prices were forcing him to think hard about how to economise, even before last harvest. But apart from some switching to older fungicides from strobilurins, the options seemed quite limited.

However this seasons delayed drillings may have a silver lining, says Leics-based Malcolm Harrison of the AICC. "The most obvious one is that many cereals clearly wont have needed an aphicide."

Deciding which inputs to modify is a particular challenge, says Mr Foster. "The real problem is that it is hard to separate them." Savings in seed rate, for example, may require extra outlay on slug control.

"A lot of people have been trimming seed rates and rightly so. But there is still quite a gulf between what research shows is possible and what happens in practice. There is probably quite a bit more saving to be had, especially with oilseed rape. But with winter cereals from now on cutting too far would be risky."

"On our mainly chalky soils we cannot afford to cut back on fertiliser. Even at todays higher N prices we could get an economic response from up to 300kg/ha on wheat. But that would require careful planning perhaps for extra fungicide and growth regulator. The two things go together. The only other options to consider are cheaper sources such as urea and using more bio solids."

"I am looking very critically at P and K fertiliser," says Mr Harrison. "We dont want to run soil indices down. But with the economics getting really tight I am looking more closely at organic alternatives. Many farms have built up good reserves in better times, and now may be the time to ride them a bit."

Concentrate spending on well established crops, he advises. "There are relatively few of them, but they have very high yield potential. Dont scrimp on them.

"But given the high proportion of later sowings, where pest and disease pressure should be less, there may be scope for some quite valuable savings, for example in the first fungicide or in P and K."

"Strobilurins have been brilliant," says Mr Foster. "But if I am under pressure I shall certainly be thinking about substituting cheaper fungicides in wheat, especially on varieties with better disease resistance like Claire.

"However, I would be reluctant to drop the strobs in barley. We have had yield responses of up to 1t/ha over conventional programmes."

Both men agree herbicide trimming should be approached cautiously. "With so much late drilling and the opportunity for stale seed-beds, there is room for some saving on blackgrass control," says Mr Harrison. "But you have to watch out. There is a danger of relaxing too far."

"We have tended to reduce inputs in oilseed rape anyway," says Mr Foster. "But weed control in the crop is still expensive and difficult to reduce. &#42

Seumas Foster (left) has had to think hard about economising on inputs, while Malcolm Harrison (right) advises against scrimping on promising crops.

INPUT SAVINGS POTENTIAL

&#8226 Many later sown cereals.

&#8226 Fewer pests & diseases?

&#8226 Scope to live off P & K bank.

&#8226 Caution over herbicide cuts.