20 October 2001

High yield wins the day

The harvest is in, the costs added up, and the jury has decided the winner of our wheat competition. But its been a tough year, as Gilly Johnson reports

ITS a case of best-laid plans going astray – for all our brave contestants. Three out of four crops failed to reach target yield, in a difficult season which started off with floods, and went on to a dry, stressed finish.

Cambs grower Brian Horsfield experienced the worst fall in yield, with his crop of Claire coming in about 1.5t/ha short of expectations. That pushed production costs up, so despite low spray bills Mr Horsfields costs/t are the highest at £65.

"Its a reflection of just how important that final tonnage is," says ADASs John Garstang, one of the judging panel. Had that Claire delivered on target, it would have shaved £10/t off his production costs.

Mr Horsfield went in with a very low seed rate of 83kg/ha; on reflection, this may not have been the best autumn to gamble on good establishment at low seed rates. Sulphur deficiency, and lack of sun in the run up to harvest may also have played a part in limiting yield potential.

Down in Kent, Simon Beddows Claire also fell short at harvest, weighing in at 0.5t/ha light of expectations. When the judging team visited in the summer, Mr Beddows was already expressing doubts as to whether the yield would be there. But he must be congratulated on input costs; of all the contenders, Mr Beddows spray bills were the least and the crop stayed clean.

Our runner-up, Herefordshire grower Peter Bawn, has to spend more on sprays; the wet west is home to a host of disease problems that eastern producers dont witness. So its all credit to him that his Marshal, sown following potatoes, overshot target with a highly respectable 9.75t/ha. Had the crop not run out of steam during boiling weather in June, it could have made the 10t mark, he reckons. At least quality is excellent; specific weights are over 76kg/hl, and hagbergs up beyond 290. Its bad luck for Mr Bawn, who was also runner-up in last years competition. Third time lucky, perhaps?

"In the circumstances, Im pleased," he says. "We did have another crop of Claire that yielded better than this one. But thats the way it goes."

Our winner for 2001 is Paul Steer. His seed crop of Xi19 carried off top prize by virtue of high yield – 10.14t/ha. And for any readers who smell a rat – Xi19 is the new wheat from our competition sponsor Advanta Seeds – the judges were scrupulously impartial.

"It just goes to show yield remains the key driver to lowering production costs," insists Mr Garstang. "Despite the fact that this crop was grown for seed, it gave the best yield and wins the competition." Mr Steers land, at Thornton Curtis, north Lincolnshire, is a top-end grade 2 sandy clay loam, which has the potential to give high yield. In the past it has supported 11.5t/ha, but 2001 wasnt a bumper season.

With such good land, the danger is lodging, and Xi19 is a leggy wheat. Despite some areas which fell over in fertiliser overlaps, Mr Steers crop managed to remain standing, courtesy of a single dose of chlormequat at T1. When visiting in the summer, judge Paul Hickman of Advanta Seeds suggested that a Terpal follow up might have been a wise idea. Now hes not so sure: "with hindsight its probably a good job he didnt – it would have upped the production costs, which could have lost Mr Steer the competition."

Highish agchem costs were offset by low fertiliser bills – and as Didin, this was applied in one shot for slow release, which also saved money by eliminating passes through the crop.

As a seed crop, grain quality has to be good, or the premium is lost. But that didnt prove a problem; specific weights came in at 79kg/hl and hagbergs were about 225. Mr Steer wins a cheque for £1,000 and an engraved trophy, held for a year.

In this competition, min till appears to have had the edge on ploughing, trimming costs by about £20/ha depending on the number of passes. "The moral is, if youre going to plough, it seems you need a heck of a yield to beat the rest," says Mr Garstang.

&#8226 For comparison, last years contestants came through with average production costs of £49/t. The winner, Kings Lynn-based Mark Means, turned in an impressive £44/t. In 1999, the average was £55/t, and winner Robin Bartleet of Essex managing £51/t.