12 April 1996

Cereal drilling goes out as potatoes given a lift

An expanding potato operation increasingly dictates tactics elsewhere

on this years northern barometer farm.

Andrew Blake reports

from County Durham

MICHAEL Manners wont be carrying out the cereal drilling next autumn at Conicliffe Grange, Staindrop, near Darlington. After doing the job himself for about 10 years, he has decided to entrust the work to a local contractor.

"I really feel I ought to be around more at potato lifting," says Mr Manners. Contracted potatoes, albeit on non-irrigated land, are the mainstay of the business, he explains. "Were planning to expand to 200 acres next year. We have a ready market at Walkers Peterlee crisping factory about 30 miles away." Pre-packs are out. "We cant get the skin finish needed on this land."

The 400ha (1000-acre) unit on sandy clay loam, all within a ring fence, works on a pretty flexible rotation involving the potatoes, winter cereals and for the first time for five years, winter oilseed rape.

Not all the land is light enough for potatoes, hence the need for other cereal breaks. "We have had some good years with spring beans, but they were late in 1993."

Double-break opportunity

A difficult potato harvest in 1993, leading to set-aside instead of wheat as the following crop on some fields, provided a double-break opportunity to get into cereal seed production – early multiplication of both Reaper winter wheat and Muscat winter barley.

The exercise proved interesting and Mr Manners is contemplating sowing winter linseed before potatoes to create similar seed growing openings in future. The risk of poor Hagbergs makes growing milling wheats "a waste of time up here," he says. "Besides I think the economics are very dubious."

Sound local agronomy advice and information on variety performance comes through membership of the North of England Arable Centre which runs trials near Dar-lington.

Regular visits from Andrew Fisher, a member of the Association of Independent Crop Consultants, are also valued. "He is here about six times a year. But I like to do most of the crop walking myself."

Advice on seed rates and fertiliser for the potatoes comes through a 10-year-old link with the Cambridge University Potato Growers Association.

Mr Manners is constantly on the lookout for more land to rent for growing the crop. Buying land is "hellish expensive round here", he comments.

Soil sampling is done regularly. Phosphate and potash levels are very high, but manganese deficiency can cause problems especially in winter barley.

Dramatically visible results from using an extra 37.5kg/ha (30 units/acre) of nitrogen on 2.4ha (6 acres) of potatoes last season have tempted him to try a couple of soil mineral-N tests for the crop this season. "We want to see if newer varieties like our Rosetta can use more N."

Three full-time arable staff, backed by casuals for potato lifting, undertake most of the field work. "I do all the spraying though I have just had another man trained to do it."

This year a trailed 24m (80ft) boom Chafer sprayer to go behind a new John Deere 6300 (90hp) tractor replaces a Sands self-propelled unit. "It wasnt worth spending money on another self-propelled machine that cant be used for potato haulage," he comments.

Machinery fleet

John Deere tackle, which includes a new 2.7m (16ft) cut 2056 combine for this season, forms the basis of the machinery fleet.

A weighbridge installed in 1976 keeps a close check on inputs and outputs. "All our grain is weighed in and out. Theres no guesswork."

Ploughing followed by power harrowing is his normal approach to combinable crop establishment.

To date the farm is blackgrass-free, and there are a very few wild oats. Main problems in the cereals are annual meadow grass and cleavers. "Nowadays were using Panther in the autumn and topping up with Starane in the spring."

Despite relatively modest nitrogen inputs – up to 175kg/ha (140 units/acre) on barley and first wheats – growth regulators on both crops are essential and he plans to try some Moddus (trinexapac-ethyl) this season.

Opus Team (epoxiconazole + fenpropimorph) will form the basis of the cereal fungicide programme this year. "It has been in a different league in NEAC trials," he explains.

Until now Mr Manners did all his own marketing except for the contracted crops. But after making "a pigs ear of it last year" he has joined a local co-op, GrainCo, to take advantage of a pooling system.

Bins and on-floor storage backed by an 18t/hour Law Denis drier allowing all his combinable crops to be stored avoids forced sales at harvest. &#42

Conicliffe Grange 1996 cropping and typical yields


Winter wheat (Brigadier, Riband,Reaper, Ritmo)1824509.43.8

Winter barley (Gaelic, Muscat)812008.83.5

Winter oilseed rape (Gazelle)33823.81.5

Potatoes (Rosetta)5914538.015.0

Oilseed rape has returned to Concliffe Grange after an absence of five years. Not all the land suits potatoes, so other breaks are needed.

Michael Manners checks pre-planting sprouting in Rosetta seed. Crisping potatoes are an important crop on the farm.