10 July 1998

Farm moves brings new learning curve

AFTER their move three years ago to Kerdiston House Farm, near Reepham, Norfolk, Robert Downing and father, David, readily admit they are on a new learning curve when it comes to growing malting barley.

"It is different land to where we were in Suffolk," says Robert. "It is easier working here but prone to capping." Annual rainfall averages 650mm (25.5in), but one-fifth of that fell in April this year, he notes.

Variety selection is a key element in achieving quality malting samples. "Choice of an IOB approved variety is critical as this is the clearest indication of what is required."

Although Halcyon is old fashioned, it is still well recognised and approved. Unlike some more modern types it tends to find a ready market, he notes. Yields since the move to Norfolk have averaged 6.7t/ha (2.7t/acre).

Getting to grips with soil nutrients on the new farm, which once supported a dairy, is still an ongoing process. Some potash and phosphate indices are adequate, but two fields with phosphate levels of zero have surprisingly given some of the highest yields, notes David. Despite that the aim is to lift indices using spring-applied compounds which ease the autumn workload. "We have had three blends made up specifically."

Target drilling date is the last week in September. Not only does this allow maximum time for controlling wheat volunteers, it avoids over-lush, well tillered crops which are hard to manage in the spring and tend to lead to high screenings, explains Robert. Most of the straw from the previous crop, usually wheat, is sold to nearby pig farms. Nevertheless, ploughing and pressing, which generally tends to be used less in the area than in Suffolk, is still the favoured primary cultivation. Closely followed by an Accord power-harrow/drill combination it offers a weatherproof system for the two-man team.

"We also lift all our own sugar beet," says David. However, trouble with the drills packer roller not encountered in Suffolk still needs ironing out.

Seed rate, using about 50% home-saved Beret Gold (fludioxonil) dressed material, aims to establish 250-300 plants. "We have played around a bit but have settled on 60kg/acre," says Robert. "We tried lower but found we lost yield and it gave us no better a sample."

To date soil mineral N testing is unlikely to provide a better guide to top dressing needs than experience, he believes. "It is a grey area and there is still a lot of work to be done. We pulled back a bit this year ending up with 94 units/acre."

That went on partly as compound in early March, the second application as urea being delayed until the third week in April to avoid encouraging secondary tillering. Urea is used rather than ammonium nitrate because experience shows it can boost yield rather more without affecting quality, he adds.

In Halcyon rhynchosporium is the main disease risk, flusilazole and epoxiconazole being the main defences, with the GS31 (first node) spray critical for good yield response, the team believes. Wind tends to restrict spraying opportunities more than in Suffolk.

"We do all our own agronomy and buy our chemicals by ringing around several suppliers." With increasing emphasis on crop assurance Robert believes he may eventually be obliged to undertake BASIS training before being able to continue that practice. &#42

THEDOWNINGS

&#8226 Fresh land, new challenges.

&#8226 Traditional IOB variety.

&#8226 Own agronomy.

&#8226 Spray windows tighter.

New land is proving a challenge for David and Robert Downing.