30 June 2000

No single right way to do it…

What lessons can be learned

from the farmers

weekly/BASF Unit Cost

Challenge? Charles Abel

relays the thoughts of

agronomist Steve

Waterhouse from sponsor

BASF and accountant judge

Simon Bennett of Deloitte

and Touche

A KEY message to emerge from the farmers weekly/BASF Unit Cost Challenge 2000 is that there is no single right way to farm efficiently.

"There are effective alternative strategies to follow," says BASF regional agronomist Steve Waterhouse. "The key would appear to be a balanced approach, not allowing costs in any one area to be too high or indeed too low, bearing in mind the potential in the land. That is to say optimising cost/tonne of production."

The need to manage fields individually was shown by the contrasting variable costs, largely reflecting field requirements rather than different strategic approaches, says Mr Waterhouse.

Peter Robertson, who grew Claire near Jedburgh in the Borders, for example, was disadvantaged by a heavy P and K requirement. But that was balanced by a much lower weed burden, allowing herbicide savings.

Robert Jones Consort grown after rape at Milton Keynes, Bucks, required slug control, and he sought savings on seed costs.

Christopher Moore growing Claire near Scunthorpe, Lincs, was able to save on fertiliser following beetroot, but weed burdens were significant, and although attempting cost control by patch spraying, herbicide costs remained high.

The greatest contrast came in disease control. All three matched fungicide type to variety, a good example being the use of specific mildewicides by the Claire growers. All finalists also used strobilurins at flag leaf, combined with a strong triazole.

But at the other key timings there were clear contrasts. On the one hand Mr Moore used a robust rate of Landmark (kresoxim-methyl + epoxiconazole) at first node to build yield potential.

In strong contrast the other finalists intentionally maintained thin stands, open crops, and lower fungicide inputs, particularly at this earlier timing.

"Of course we cannot be certain that this contrast was instrumental in lowering the unit cost for Mr Moore, but it does fit the pattern of extensive trial work, which shows that contrary to conventional expectation, thin or backward crops in particular can realise significantly improved yield potential following the use of robust rates of Landmark at the jointing stage," says Mr Waterhouse.

"While all growers achieved good yields at similar cost, it was the extra 1t/ha produced by Mr Moore that made the crucial difference, illustrating another key principle, that wheat profitability is largely yield-driven."

Mr Moores approach also demonstrates the benefit of the increased persistence given by robust rates of strobilurins; in his case in the saving of an ear spray whilst maintaining a very high yield, concludes Mr Waterhouse.