Learning fast from lower input crops
By John Burns
GROSS margins from the LIFE demonstration area at Trerule Farm, Trerulefoot, Cornwall, were encouraging in 1994. But they could have been better with a little more nitrogen, say host farmers Chris and Jon Bond and manager Tony Lister.
Crops grown under the Lower Input Farming and Environment project generally gave gross margins lower than conventional cropping (see table).
"Our barley yields were similar to the LIFE crops, but it wasnt a good year round here anyway," says Jon Bond. "Our Pastiche winter wheat did 8.6t/ha, the LIFE Pastiche did 5.5t/ha. The only difference in inputs was a growth regulator and a bit more nitrogen – 210kg/ha on our crops and just 138kg/ha on the LIFE wheat."
The main reason for spring oilseed rape gross margins being similar was a poor farm showing and high LIFE costs for establishing and later eliminating a green over-winter cover. "I cant see any farmer putting catch crops in like that and then paying to desiccate them before drilling the spring crop," comments Jon Bond.
The idea had been to graze the cover with sheep. That would have cut costs and provided a return.
The LIFE oats also disappointed although they did better the year before, explains Mr Lister. "Last year they were short of nitrogen and the crop looked starved all through the season. I would say they were at least 38kg/ha short of nitrogen. I suspect the test used to measure soil nitrogen in the spring is unreliable and misled them into thinking there was more N available than there actually was."
Jon Bond reckons the LIFE project has brought benefits. "Vic Jordan has shown us how to grow oats and how to keep Halcyon barley standing up without using a growth regulator. We now have the confidence to delay spring nitrogen, even for malting barley, and we have the Rau tillage system to do part of our farm."
But the LIFE system involves very intensive crop monitoring. "That could prove expensive on a big farm. And the risks are high."
Tony Lister agrees. "To avoid BYDV we would have to delay the start of drilling until Oct 10. Until the powers that be recognise the risks in that, and produce some sort of compensation, we cannot justify changing."
So will the LIFE system be adopted throughout Trerule Farm? Not yet reckons Jon Bond. "Our budget yields are low; 2t/acre of malting barley, 2t/acre of milling oats and 2.5t/acre of milling wheat. But we have a cost structure based on making a profit at those yields. If we get higher yields it will be mainly down to the weather and they will be a bonus."
Trerule Farm LIFE project 1993/94 results (£/ha)
W wheatW oatsW barleySet-asideW barleySpr rape
( A) (B)
Tot v costs1609914316161128
* Spring oilseed rape costs included establishment and eradication of
over-wintering forage rape green cover crop.