22 May 1998

Floods are not enough to dampen farms chances

Wheat which spent nearly

three weeks under floodwater

sounds an unlikely contender

in the farmers weekly/Brown

Butlin Unit Cost Challenge,

supported by accountants

Deloitte & Touche. But

subsequent management

made up for the soggy start

as Charles Abel reports

A PRACTICAL approach to precision farming, together with a tenacious grip on machinery costs, means each tonne of wheat grown on high yielding land at Sheepcote Farm, Severn Stoke, Worcester, is among the cheapest to grow in the UK.

Soils on the part-tenanted, part-owned 205ha (512-acre) farm include deep alluvial loam, as in Lodge field, where the competition crop of Brigadier was grown in 1996/7.

"Part of the field floods every year, with up to 6ft of water, causing up to 50% plant loss in some years," says Stephen Watkins. "We start with a high population and then manage what is left after the winter to make the most of it."

A mild climate helps put flood damaged crops back on track, speeding spring growth as water-logged soils dry and warm quickly. The high water table from the River Severn also has compensations. "This deep alluvial loam never runs dry, even in the harshest drought. If we get wheat through the winter we can guarantee 4.5t/acre."

With that in mind inputs are not stinted – typically topping £240/ha. But detailed crop walking and timely applications ensure a just-enough approach to product use.

Seed, fertiliser and spray rates are all varied across the field according to need, says Mr Watkins. This is done by using forward speed and gear when spreading or spraying and an electronic pressure and rate controller on the new Accord drill.

Most seed is farm saved and only a basic seed dressing is used to cut cost and speed emergence. The Brigadier was sown on Sept 18 at an average rate of 155kg/ha, rising in clay dips and near ditches.

Despite having sugar beet and peas in the rotation cereals get extra P and K. "Our best yields come from low index sites, but we do not dare cut on applications, we did once and felt the effects."

Costly 0:24:24 compound at £124/t and nitrogen at £125/t did not help. Top dressing was 220kg/ha, split 20% February, 40% March and 40% April.

Although dropping potatoes from the rotation may have cut residual fertility, it has allowed the use of basic slag on beet to raise soil pH and improve trace element and sulphur supply.

With no blackgrass, rogueable wild oats and minimal broad-leaved weeds, herbicides cost just £23/ha for a mix of 1.3 litres/ha of ipu plus 2.5 litres/ha of Jolt (ipu + pendimethalin) in mid-October.

By contrast fungicide costs soared to £78/ha. "Some strobilurin was tried at T1/T2 and it gave us 9cwt/acre or 1.1t/ha more than adjacent wheat which had a conventional programme."

The Ensign (fenpropimorph + kresoxim-methyl) went on at 0.7 litres/ha on Apr 3, costing £40.56/ha, mixed with 0.25 litres/ha of Epic (epoxiconazole) costing £9.46/ha to clean up existing infection. A follow-up spray of 0.75 litres/ha of Epic was applied on May 21 for £28.38/ha.

Lodging control relied on one 2 litres/ha dose of chlormequat and wetter mixed with the first fungicide.

Lodge field sits under 6ft of River Severn flood water each winter. But provided wheat survives until spring, the deep alluvial loam has the potential to yield over 11t/ha, justifying input use, says Stephen Watkins.

STEPHEN WATKINS

Variety Brigadier

Variable costs (£/ha)

Seed 24

Compound 38.60

Nitrogen 76.57

Herbicides 23.33

Fungicides 78.40

Insecticide 1.70

Growth reg 4.16

Total 246.76

Operational costs

Sub-soil + press 13.50

Power harrow 15.26

Drill 16.78

Spreading 3.68 x 4 14.72

Spraying 2.91 x 4 11.64

Total excluding harvest* 71.90

Overall cost

excluding harvest 318.66

Yield (t/ha) 11.98

Unit cost (£/t)* 26.60

*Harvest costs will be released when the winner is announced at the Royal Show on Tue, July 7.