25 September 1998

No skimping when wheat crop needs a flying start

There is little room for short

cuts in winter wheat

establishment this autumn.

That is the consensus from

our barometer farms.

Andrew Blake reports

WHEAT drilling progress varies greatly across the country, but none of our eight regional representatives plan to cut corners to save costs.

Indeed the slug threat on several farms is pushing them the other way.

But in contrast to 1997 moist soils mean expensive clod bashing should be unnecessary.

In the west Steven Mackintosh is well on schedule with about 40% of his 420ha (1040 acres) sown by last weekend. "We are getting some very good seed-beds and the seed is going into moisture." At the other extreme harvest delays meant Scotlands Eric Haggart had no wheat land ploughed.

The need to bury trash from the wide range of break crops at The Homme, Ross-on-Wye, Here-fordshire makes ploughing the key primary operation. "We have to plough most times so we are not looking at the discing route," says Mr Mackintosh. He relies on the judgement of a cultivations team of Chris Price and Jon Cole to adjust secondary work with power harrows as they see fit. "It is a flexible system at the moment, but we are trying to eliminate a pass."

He is keen to move to a wider, faster single pass system next year on his mostly light land, but not at the risk of poorer establishment.

"The most important day in a crops life is the day it is sown," he says.

Maximum current output with the 4m system is 30ha (74 acres) a day. "But generally we are looking 15ha. The next step could be to go to 6m."

Main variety change is replacement of Brigadier by Rialto. Mr Mackintosh hopes the latters high stem sugar content should counter drought better on the lightest soils.

"We have five main varieties to spread our risks." Consort and home-saved royalty-free Riband are the first drilled. Stiff-strawed Buster is his choice for heavier river soils, with Reaper reserved for drilling after sugar beet and potatoes. All bar two fields are first wheats.

Potential pheasant damage dictates that drilling rates, even for early September, are no lower than 250 seeds a sq m and are gradually increased. "We will finish up with about 390 after the beet and potatoes, though we find differences between varieties also have a bearing." Consort is much shier to tiller than Reaper, he notes.

Oilseed rapes absence from the rotation means slugs are rarely troublesome. "But we shall have to watch the crops after potatoes and use Draza if we need to. We wont skimp." &#42

BAROMETER ROUND-UP

&#8226 North: Seed-beds will merit extra attention this autumn to deter slugs, says Keith Snowball who has yet to sow any wheat. "Some of our land is ploughing up like bacon-sides and will need tender loving care." He admits his ploughing/power harrowing can be expensive but is reluctant to change. "We never regret it. We cut quite a bit of corn elsewhere this harvest which was established with one-pass operations or minimum cultivations and some was just pulling up by the roots." A plough press could reduce power harrowing need and trim his £64/ha (£26/acre) target establishment cost. But the logistics of moving it when contracting, and its practicality on hillsides, need considering.

&#8226 East: Take-all and slugs rather than cultivations are uppermost in David Pettitts mind. Although he has slashed his wheat area by over 25% he delayed drilling for a week until Sep 18 to counter the disease, and for the first time is applying slug pellets with the seed. Second wheat Hussar was badly hit by take-all. "So we are increasing our winter barley and breaks." Consort replacing Hussar as second wheat will be sown after first wheat Equinox. Staff cuts mean he hopes to replace his separate power harrow and drill system with a combination unit, but the decision has been deferred for a year. "With the economics as they are at the moment we have had to put it off."

&#8226 South-west: Stewart Hayllor has more wheat this year with extra grass being ploughed up. "We are up from 150 to 190 acres." But with a second drill this season he is in no hurry to sow. "We find the second week in October always gives us best yields." Home-saved Brigadier and Soissons are the mainstays, but he is trying 3.2ha (8 acres) each of Madrigal, Savannah and Equinox on the strength of good yields in local trials. Most wheat will be drilled conventionally with an air seeder after ploughing and cultivating, starting the first week of October. But the new Rau machine will also be tried after minimum cultivations. "It should be at least £10/acre cheaper." Slugs are rarely troublesome at Gullaford Farm, he notes.

&#8226 Midlands: Slugs and higher than average thousand grain weights make Steven McKendrick cautious about seed rates this autumn. "We are playing safe and keeping the rates up this year after oilseed rape. Normally we start at 225 seeds/sq m, but we have opted for 325." Virtually every clod in the first sown field had a slug under it. Mini-pellets went on straight afterwards at 7kg/ha. Only in very dry conditions is it worth applying them with the seed, he says. Star 1998 performer Riband retains a 50% share of his area, backed by 30% Consort and 10% each of Reaper and Brigadier. With over a quarter of his 445ha (1100 acres) in by the weekend seed-beds are coming down very well, he reports. "We are trying to establish the crop for £30/acre."