12 April 1996

Dodging the drought is challenge facing teams

Six teams are vying to become this years Lloyds Bank Farmer Challenge champions. Robert Harris takes an early look at their progress to date

DROUGHT is uppermost in most contestants minds this year. The Cereals 96 site at Temple Bruer, near Wellingore, Lincs, is typical Lincoln Heath – an alkaline sandy soil overlying limestone.

Most teams farm heavier soils. As Southern LADS (Lincolnshire Agriculture Discussion Group) leader Nigel Patrick, who farms grade 1 silts near Sleaford, puts it: "Were used to mauling in wheat in January and getting 4t/acre."

The thin soils can produce good crops. But all teams are manipulating plant development as insurance against drought.

Mr Patricks team drilled Riband on Sep 22, at 106kg/ha (94lbs/acre) to give 230 seeds/sq m. "Thats given us our target population of 200 plants/sq which should encourage good root development," says Mr Patrick.

First off

But Alford Agronomy group were first off, sowing their plots on Sep 11 at just 92kg/ha (82lbs/acre) for the same reason. "We chose Brigadier for its high yield potential, and because it responds well to low rate early drilling," says Mike Johnson.

A near 100% take and little winter kill means plots are still thick. "With 5-6 tillers on most plants, we need to lose more."

The Caunton Group drilled at the same time as Southern LADS, but chose Buster for its early drilling potential. Nearly twice as many seeds were planted to make up for its shy tillering.

"We wanted to do something different from normal. We plan to use high levels of nitrogen, so we chose a high yielder with stiff straw," says Mike Jackson. Other groups drilled at similar rates later in the month.

Like most groups, De Montfort University based its autumn weed control on low rates of diflufenican and IPU to remove small amounts of annual meadow grass, chickweed, shepherds purse, pansy and speedwell from their plots of Brigadier.

"The mix worked very well. We also had a lot of oilseed rape in the plots due to contaminated seed. But the Panther seemed to sensitise it, and the frost did the rest," says Jonathan Hunt.

Frosts also killed a heavy infestation of peas from the previous crop. Only two groups chose to control them chemically – Alford applied 1litre/ha (0.7pt/acre) of CMPP to control large peas encouraged by early drilling, and Southern LADS used 0.5l/ha (0.35pt/acre) of Optica (CMPP).

Sleaford was the only group to omit an autumn herbicide. "We decided to use a fairly low input strategy on the plots," says David Nichols. "Its not traditional wheat land."

As a result the group chose Rialto, which they believe should yield as well as any variety on the site. But they hope the added quality and better marketability will give them the edge.

But they are still keeping a close check on input costs. "Theres no point slinging money about if the weeds arent there."

Alford, Caunton and Northern LADS added manganese to their autumn aphicide. Northern LADS spokesman David Nelstrop has some experience of heath land and views it as an essential input on the groups Consort, a variety which he says does well on this type of soil, producing feed type yields but with the chance of a premium.

Disease pressure

"We used Omex Mn Plus to get the crop off to a good start. Manganese deficiency opens the crop up to disease pressure, especially mildew. The product also contains a bit of nitrogen which gave the crop a bit of a kick."

The group has budgeted for 200kg/ha (160 units/acre) of spring nitrogen. Plans are to hold off until early April and apply it as one dressing to keep application costs down.

Caunton has a similar strategy, but all other groups applied some early N to preserve tillers or promote early root growth. Early chlormequat sprays are also planned for the same reason. Warmer weather is needed, though adjuvants will be used if necessary.

lReaders can view the plots and quiz teams at Cereals 96. The event takes place at Temple Bruer, near Wellingore, Lincs, on June 12-13. &#42

&#8226 Pond Field, Temple Bruer.

&#8226 Sandy loam over limestone.

&#8226 pH 7.2 (Sep 1992).

&#8226 Mar-Jun rainfall (av 1994 and 1995) – 125mm (5in).

&#8226 Previous cropping – peas.

&#8226 Cultivations – plough and press, light harrowing, drilled and rolled.

&#8226 Soil mineral N – 69kg/ha (ADAS).

Alfords early drilled Brigadier is thick, despite a low seed rate. Volunteer peas have also made plots leggy, say members James Mowbray (left) and Mike Johnson. But good, strong roots should help yields.