12 September 1997

Cereals contest shows scope to match inputs

As thoughts turn to cutting costs for the coming seasons wheat crops, Robert Harris reports some pertinent messages from this years Lloyds Bank Farmer Challenge competition

MATCHING inputs to wheat crop potential rather than relying on more programmed approaches slashed up to £200/ha (£81/acre) off wheat growing costs in this years Lloyds Bank/RASE/FW Farmer Challenge.

Crops suffered no yield or quality penalty, so margins are set to be boosted by a similar amount. Competitors still have to sell their crops before the competition closes at the end of October.

The teams constantly revised inputs according to crop prospects. Bone dry seed-beds delayed emergence, and bitter weather in January was followed by a drought which lasted until June. Coping with such a variable season was not easy.

"The mood of the moment is to try and pare back inputs. But commercially, many people cant wait and often overcook them," says John Rule of Clayland Farmers.

Rialto did well

Rialto on that groups plots exceeded all expectations. It yielded 8.6t/ha (3.5t/acre) despite the lowest spend of all the groups. "It had 80.2kg/hl specific weight, a good Hagberg at 342 and 12.3% protein."

Quality was the aim from the start, he comments. Little attempt was made to push the backward-looking crop. "Thats why we got good quality – a thick crop would have produced pinched grain and could have lodged.

Sole fungicide was a cheap ear wash. "If all you see is the odd pustule in the crop, dont jump." Only 150kg/ha (120 units/acre) of nitrogen was applied, tailored to crop growth and residual soil levels of 141-212kg/ha, and no growth regulator was needed.

High specific weight Brigadier grown by the Kimbolton group made top yield at 8.9t/ha. Yet nitrogen, herbicides and fungicides were all trimmed to suit crop prospects at the time, says Paul Spackman.

The groups plots also received 150kg/ha of nitrogen. "Judging by the 11.7% protein content, we could have reduced the N a bit more," Mr Spackman comments.

"A lot of farmers go over the top, especially on heavy, well structured soils like this boulder clay. If you dont follow up with growth regulator, you can get a lot of lodging, as this year."

Herbicides also attract an unnecessarily high spend, he adds. The group used just 0.5 litres/ha of Starane (fluroxypyr) – grass weeds were ignored. "There is scope to be more selective. Producing the highest yield with one of the dirtiest plots tells a story."

A thin crop of Consort produced 7.8t/ha (3.2t/acre) for the Abbots Ripton group, slightly more than team member James Winters farm average.

The October-drilled crop produced few tillers, but sustained those it had during the drought. Specific weight hit 77.3kg/hl, screenings were 0.5%, similar to most groups, and protein was 11.7%, despite trimming N to 172.5kg/ha.

"Reducing inputs seems to have been the right thing to do. Profit margin is the bottom line, and the high input/high output approach doesnt necessarily increase it. We didnt get the crop to tiller, so cut back on nitrogen and fungicide – the open crop stayed largely free of disease."

Slightly disappointing is how David Brown describes the Huntingdon Snifters reaction to an 8.8t/ha (3.56t/acre) yield from Charger. That was just over 1t/ha down on target yield, but was good for the year and similar to group farm yields, he admits.

"Crops had a bad start, and it was a strange year weather wise. But hopefully we will make £10/t over feed." A 333 Hagberg, 77.5kg/hl specific weight and 11.6% protein will help.

Mr Brown is hesitant about cutting corners commercially. "We left out the T1 fungicide – that would be too risky at home." All nitrogen was applied in one go on Apr 4. Although impractical commercially, it has reinforced his thoughts on timing. "Ive always said there is a lot of hot air talked about it. Its all down to when you get the rain."

Poor establishment

The cost of redrilling – £80/ha (£32/acre) – shows the impact poor establishment can have on margins, says Cereals 97 host farmer Bill Turney. "It was a major part of my spend. But it is very interesting to note how close yields were despite all the different approaches used."

His tactics reflected farm policy, and included base fertiliser dressing in the autumn, a multi low dose fungicide approach and plenty of N to produce 8.7t/ha (3.5t/acre) of high protein Rialto.

"With hindsight, I would have cut the quantity of material applied. I suspect there is no bonus in growing 12.9% wheat compared with 11.5% wheat, so I could have dropped the last N application."n

Getting to grips with inputs. Sparse, droughty crops in spring saw teams revise management plans, with some saving up to £200/ha on costs.

LLOYDS BANK CHALLENGE

&#8226 Yields similar.

&#8226 Quality good.

&#8226 Matching inputs to crop potential slashed costs.