15 October 1999

Independent trials lead way

Independent agronomic

advice is more important

than ever. For one group of

farmers it prompted the

creation of a new trials site

and associated agronomy

group. Charles Abel reports

INDEPENDENT advice tailored to local needs is so important for one group of arable farmers that they have created their own agronomy group and trials site.

"We need a trials site we can believe in, rather than relying on distributor or manufacturer trials that we all know can be prone to manipulation," says Coldstream/Duns farmer William Grimsdale, a founder member of the new agronomy group based at Thornton, near Berwick-on-Tweed, Northumberland.

The group started five years ago, taking ARC information sheets and visiting ARCs Bishop Burton trials site in Yorks. At that stage local trials were considered less important than access to truly independent information. "A lot of the messages translated north very well, once timings were adjusted," recalls Mr Grimsdale.

But the need to match advice to local conditions and rotations became increasingly apparent. ARCs acquisition of the Newcastle-based North East Arable Centre provided an opportunity for a more local focus.

"We needed a local home, especially for new members, rather than Cockle Park which is 50 miles south and faces very different conditions," says host farmer John Smales. With ARC help the Berwick trials site was established and an agronomy group centred upon it.

The development fits ARCs re-arrangement of trials sites in the north-east, with Bishop Burton moving further north in Yorks to Bainton near Driffield and NEACs old Thirsk site moving north to Croft, near Darlington. NEACs Cockle Park site remains near Newcastle.

Between Cockle Park at Newcastle and Scottish Agronomy at Edinburgh there was a virtual void of independent trials, says Mr Robinson. Hence the Berwick site.

"Arable farming in Northumberland is defined by the hills. There is a world of difference between the coastal plain, the lower Tyne valley and the Tweed valley," stresses Kelso/Coldstream farmer Peter Straker-Smith.

A technical committee of eight local farmers representing 4,800ha (12,000 acres) of cropping now ensures trials have a local flavour. "Ensuring the group is farmer led, unlike many other trials sites, is a key issue," Mr Smales says.

Group membership is already 20 and growing as transitional ARC membership ends for ex-NEAC members. The goal is 50-60 members. "If we get that it could provide a good stepping stone to move further north," notes ARC regional manager Dave Robinson.

The Berwick site will carry core ARC trials, such as fungicide screens, plus trials with a local flavour. "Everybody benefits from a bigger national picture, while local farmers see how those inputs work locally, as well as deciding what other work they want to look at in their area," says Mr Robinson.

Like other ARC sites a contingency area provides plots for mid-year tests. "If something comes up during the season we can have a look," explains Mr Robinson.

Workload kept trials to cereals only this year, but oilseed rape will be added next year. Mr Robinson believes the site could become one of ARCs biggest. A senior trials manager and a trials technician are being sought to run the site. &#42

ARC BERWICK

&#8226 Independent trials, for independent advice.

&#8226 2.5ha of trials.

&#8226 350 wheat, 225 barley plots.

&#8226 Plots labelled all year to aid farmer visits.

&#8226 Drilling date/rate.

&#8226 Strob straw effects.

&#8226 Pushing six-row w barley.

&#8226 Into Scotland next?

Uniting to source independent local information in Northumberland are (l-r) trials site host John Smales and ARC regional manager Dave Robinson with Tweed valley farmers William Grimsdale, Neil Armstrong, David Calder and Peter Straker-Smith.

Lodging

Keeping crops standing is so important that low lodging older varieties are still grown rather than higher yielding newcomers. "A slight yield reduction is acceptable to keep a crop standing," says Mr Calder.

To speed the move to new, higher yielding varieties, trials will look at pgr use and sowing date and rate. "To do this work we need a trials site we can believe in. Lodging is just too important," says Mr Calder.

Drilling date

Winter wheat drilled on Sept 9, two weeks earlier than anything else locally, will show the scope for moving harvest forward and using even lower seed rates.

Further work, using extra-early maturing breeding material from the John Innes Institute in Norwich will assess the potential for even earlier harvesting.

Seed rates at Berwick range from 100-400seeds/sqm, while other ARC sites go as low as 50seeds/sqm.

Strob straw effects

Strob straw greening is a real issue in the north, which southern trials can not simulate. The yield benefit of a T3 strob is clear, but up to a weeks harvest delay can push cutting into bad weather, says Mr Calder.

"Combines were more like forage harvesters trying to cope with the green straw this year," says Mr Smales.

Ripe grain, but green straw, can mean glyphosate (Roundup) is worthwhile. Earlier drilling could help too. But trials are needed to confirm the best approach. "We dont want to be changing strategies based on one wet year," stresses Mr Robinson.

Second generation strobs need checking too. "They may not be as bad, but there again they may be worse. We need to know."

Six-row barley

Pushing six-row winter barley for top yield and respectable specific weight is a key goal. "We know six-rows can do well in the area, so we want to try to push them further, to exploit any regional advantage we may have," says Mr Robinson.

Nitrogen, fungicide and pgr use are all being adjusted, six-row barleys being managed more like wheat, while two-rows are managed more like spring barley.

"We can grow 10t/ha winter barley continuously and the new fungicides are already helping us achieve good specific weights," notes Mr Grimsdale. "Compared with 7t/ha continuous winter wheat that is attractive. Were already on the way."

Winter barley also provides a good entry for winter rape, the only break apart from vining peas with a sensible harvest date. "We cant sow rape after wheat like they can 200 miles further south," he says.