New agronomy angles keep costs down
Crop technology and
agronomy have raced ahead
in recent years, but applying
the science at the farm gate
can be a challenge.
Andrew Swallow visited a
leading north Norfolk grower
and his adviser to see how
they have integrated the
NEW techniques are producing top yields and driving down costs for one Norfolk grower.
Sensible transfer of the latest research findings to a farm level is behind the improvements, says Jack Hammond, of Aldborough Farms.
"The key to low costs is producing big heaps," he says.
Earlier drilling dates, new fungicides and varieties, and wholesale changes to crop nutrition have seen wheat yields climb to average over 10t/ha (4t/acre) and barley to 8t/ha (3.25t/acre). Advice from Morley Agricultural Consultants has had a lot to do with that, he says.
Those yield increases have pulled his wheat break-even price/t down to the low £60s and more reliable sugar beet yields have allowed him to reduce the crop area to 65ha (160 acres). "We are growing 28 acres less than last year, and that was 14 acres down on the previous year."
But Mr Hammond is still confident he will be able to manage the crop to hit quota. Recent fungicide research has shown 7t/ha (2.8t/acre) yield responses to Punch C (flusilazole + mbc) or Alto (cyproconazole) when mixed with sulphur. That will be used to boost yield in the summer if there is any danger of a shortfall.
"You do have to be prepared to let the crop grow on to Christmas to get the full effect," he adds.
All 140ha of wheat is first wheat and drilling now starts in mid-September following vining peas.
"Each year we seem to start at a new record early date, probably while we are still combining."
Seed rates have been reduced to 80-90kg/ha (0.6-0.7cwt/acre), sowing 150 seeds/sq m, to allow for the earlier start, and only suitable varieties such as Claire are drilled in the early slot.
"The early start is a tremendous advantage especially on the lighter land, and we are fortunate that grass weeds are not too much of a problem here," says his MAC agronomist, Peter Riley.
Traditionally, winter barley drilling in late September was the first crop in, but now that follows the wheat early drilling window. The balance of the wheats are sown as the first root crops, off the heavier ground, are lifted during October.
Into November, spring barley is sown following sugar beet on the heavier ground. But Mr Hammond stresses that drilling takes place only if the soil is fit.
"Soil conditions are far more important than the calendar. The vast majority of our spring barley is still drilled in the new year. Also we have all Optic this year, which is particularly susceptible to rhynchosporium and has proved a problem in the past with autumn-sown crops."
Weed control has changed little on the farm in recent years, with ipu plus diflufenican dealing with most weeds effectively.
Rogueing removes any wild oats or blackgrass. "We aim not to have a single wild oat go through the combine. All the crops are walked, including the sugar beet and peas."
But with the move to more early drilling, Mr Hammond has started ploughing immediately behind the combine before winter barley crops to create a stale seed-bed.
"We are very aware of the need to contain grass weeds. That is a potential cost of the early drilling," says Mr Riley.
After a trial with strobilurins on the farm three years ago, Mr Hammond has used the new chemistry across the board since. "They have increased yields by 0.5t/acre."
In line with Morley research, nitrogen inputs have been increased to take advantage of the yield effect, most notably on winter malting barley. "On Fanfare we have increased nitrogen from 85 units/acre a couple of years ago to 130 units/acre this year."
That is aimed to produce a grain nitrogen content of 1.7%, comfortably above the 1.55% minimum of many modern malting markets, and yields are nearly 2t/ha (0.8t/ha) higher than when the farm grew Halcyon.
Such continual improvement is Mr Hammonds way of coping with falling commodity prices, he says. "Doing what I do better is my version of diversification."
Using Morley and other research bodies findings, and Mr Rileys ability to translate them to the farm is fundamental to that improvement.
"I am the interpreter, not the researcher," he says. *
Grower and interpreter. Jack Hammond (left) uses the services of Morley Agriculture Consultants Peter Riley to apply the latest research results on the farm. For example, nitrogen has been tuned to strobilurin use on this Pearl barley.
• 570ha (1400 acres) fine sandy silt loam.
• Cereals feed/seed wheat, malting winter and spring barley.
• Breaks sugar beet, vining peas, spring beans, dwarf beans, potatoes (let out).
• Morley Agricultural Consultants used to transfer latest technology.
• Average yields: 10t/ha wheat, 8t/ha barley.