11 June 1999

Crop catch up is underway

Bringing in a manager to

tighten up agronomy is

starting to take effect at

Hoe Hall. And pigs give

cause for a double


Simon Wragg reports

SOILED boots in the farm office are the first sign that crop walking is in full swing. Arable manager Simon Brock is busy ahead of the sprayer in a bid to catch up after a windy, unsettled spring.

"Residual herbicide sprays would normally be applied in autumn, but we couldnt travel on some land. Instead, were catching up with contact sprays which are more costly and tricky when growth regulators need applying

"Ive ended up tank-mixing more than Id like which can add to crop stress, a particular concern for malting barley to protect quality," says Mr Brock.

Decisions on applications are also being set against cost. A fungicide trial for wheat (see table) has given the first visual indication of the most effective and economic series of sprays; an issue currently being discussed by agronomists. A dose at the first node stage of growth is largely unnecessary, adding £12-£15/ha (£5-£6) to costs.

Field inspection in 14ha (34 acres) of second wheat has revealed a worrying level of take-all, a soil-borne disease that kills off the root system. "We could be looking at a yield loss of up to 50% in some areas," he says.

With a bias for feed varieties, where premiums are relatively unknown, such losses cant be tolerated. "Were going all out for yield, therefore, second wheats will have to go."

On the same tack to boost output, harvesting of sugar beet will no longer be allowed to delay drilling of wheat. The rotation is being tweaked, taking in to account soil type, to ensure it is all in by the end of September; the first week of October at the outside.

In cash terms the early drilling advantage is clear. A first wheat at Hoe Hall could yield 11t/ha, almost half as much again as a second crop.

Labour profiles have also been drafted to ensure a swift turnaround from harvest to cultivations. Contractors will be called in to clear straw. A neighbour will also assist with some of the ploughing in return for help with his own combining, says Mr Brock.

Returning to this seasons crops, owner James Keith reports sugar beet was touching between the rows in time for the Suffolk Show giving a local indication yields should be good. "At the very least we expect to see this by the Norfolk Show on Jun 20, so were confident."

That is tempered slightly by a small amount of frost damage on early drilled beet which has set them back a fortnight.

Barley is suffering in places with blackgrass and oats where autumn herbicides were delayed. "Apart from odd areas theyre clean top to bottom and prospect for selling some for malting is good. A dose of Fortress at 0.1 litre/ha has cleared mildew off Regina which can be susceptible," explains Mr Brock.

Spray budgets are being kept in check. For wheat it is set at £76/ha (£31/acre) for fungicide, £35/ha (£14/acre) for herbicide, £22/ha (£9/acre) for growth regulators, and £12/ha (£5/acre) for insecticides.

"Despite problems this spring we were still within budget," he says. If wheat yields 9t/ha (3.6t/acre) and sells for £75/t it will leave a gross margin of £665/ha (£269/acre) with area aid.

The prospects for an area of C1 Linseed grown for multiplication looks uncertain with changes in support payments. Oilseed rape faces a similar predicament with subsidy cuts.

Harvest window

"No doubt the gross margin may be lower, but the rape crop provides an early harvest window to get wheat in, and its a very useful break-crop. These advantages will have to be costed in," he says.

On a brighter note, 40% of this years oilseed has been forward sold at £150/t; a decision Mr Keith is pleased about. "I wish wed sold more, but it is easy to say that with hindsight. Area payments of £254/ha and crop values of £100/t make for awful reading."

Commitment to markets has been a talking point elsewhere following Velcourts decision to sell its combineable crops through one merchant. A former grain trader, Mr Keith says its the right way to go: "Elimination of risk is vital and this is clearly one way to manage it."

Building relations with buyers also extends to the pig enterprise, although many will be seeing more of their bank manager or accountant than anyone else, adds Mr Keith.

Treading water

The conventional outdoor herd is "treading water", but has yet to recoup the losses and interest charges from the lull in prices.

"Weve budgeted for 88p/kg to survive and I cant see returns suddenly improving. I hope I am being unduly pessimistic. A lot will depend on whether buyers stick to British and praying for no adverse reaction from current European food scares," he says.

By contrast, the organic herd has brought cause for celebration. The first weeks farrowings have averaged 12.6 piglets/litter "over our expectations", says Mr Keith. That puts the first 80 young-stock in the system and on to Waitrose shelves.

On the back of this is another pig-orientated celebration. Mr Keith has been accepted for a Nuffield Scholarship to look at organic production in Europe and beyond. "Its wonderful, but will add to pressure on time. I must be back here by October to grade our first supplies off the farm."

So it truly will be a case of "God speed the plough". And thats particularly apt given the current re-roofing of the village church outside his office window. &#42

Wheat fungicide visual trial

Firstnode Second node Before flag leaf Cost/ha (acre) Rating

Spray date 16.03.99 15.04.99 23.05.99

Landmark Landmark £65 (£26) III

Amistar+ Opus Landmark £63 (£25) I

Opus Unix + Opus Landmark £80 (£32) II

Opus Landmark Landmark £77 (£31) II

Left: Arable manager Simon Brock has decided that second wheats are out ……. and owner James Keith will soon be looking at improved prospects with organic pigs (below) destined for Waitrose.