Potatoes remain the key drivers of operations on Farmers Weekly’s Barometer farm near Northern Ireland, Andrew Blake hears

This season potatoes are planned to account for a quarter of the 400ha (1000 acres) of land James Wray will farm around Myroe near Limavady.

As the Ulster Farmers’ Union’s potato farming representative for the north west, Mr Wray describes this year’s prices as “OK, just OK. We are making money, but I won’t be rushing out to buy my first Ferrari quite yet.”

The weather’s recent impact on his operations in both field and store has been particularly noticeable.

“Our main problem this year is that the crop in store has started budding very early after all the mild weather we’ve had. We have plenty of ambient storage on the farm but only 500t of cold storage.”

Demand is still quite sluggish, he adds. “So the grader isn’t operating at full speed, and I can see an awful lot of work building up that is all going to need doing at the same time.”

Last summer’s soaking, which Mr Wray admits was not quite as bad as in England, made for difficult lifting, especially of tubers from the drills within the sprayer tramlines.

“So we have changed our sprayer from the 21m tractor-mounted unit to a 24m self-propelled Bateman, which will leave fewer tracks. The whole unit is 2-2.5t lighter so the tracks should also be shallower.”

Another benefit should come from the four-wheel steering, which is expected to help cut damage at the drill ends, he says.

“Although I have only used the machine a couple of times, and it’s 13 years old, I must admit I am very impressed with it and the back up.

“You can ring Bateman direct and speak to someone – usually the person who answers the call – who knows every bolt and washer on it and can talk you through most problems with its operation. How many other agricultural machinery manufacturers can you say that about?”

Potato-grading

Another significant purchase, through New Holland, has been an EZ-Steer system from Trimble, says Mr Wray.

“This piece of electronic wizardry will be mounted in one of our tractors and by using GPS technology it will steer the machine down the field.

“Last year one of my tractor operators, who was responsible for creating the straight beds which the rest of the fleet uses to plant the potatoes, left us.

“So my father took it upon himself to do the job.”

But after a year of following the theory that a curved drill of potatoes is better than a straight one because it is longer and so leads to a bigger crop, Mr Wray decided to adopt GPS to try to iron out the curves.

“It should also avoid having to watch the planting team driving up and down the field with lights and flashing beacons on just in case they drive round a corner and crash into one another!”

New spring sowing tactics – maybe

For several years the farm’s cereal sowing has been done by local contractor – Gorthill Farm Contracting – using a Lemken one-pass power-harrow combination drill.

“This year they have bought a 6m Horsch drill. So provided I get a good quote (are you listening, boys?) then my spring crops will be our first using a plough/press/drill system.”

The spring barley varieties, in total 100ha (250 acres), will be Westminster, Static and Quench. The 20ha (50 acres) of winter-sown crop is all Retriever.

Last year I had great results with Westminster, both in grain and straw yield, so I’m working on the theory ‘if you do what you did, you will get what you got’.”

“A neighbour and good friend of mine grew Quench and I was very impressed with the crop, so I thought I’d better give it a try.

NI-Barom-map

“As for Static, I am quite worried – with more and more livestock farmers giving up – about where we are going to sell our straw next year.

“Static has fantastic yields with short straw, and is a variety I can use to push the combine into achieving throughput with high yields.

“Our winter barley area has shrunk over the years, from 200 acres, as we can achieve very good yields from the new spring varieties. But it’s good to have some winter barley to get the combine running and harvest started.”

All the winter cereals, including 93ha (230 acres) of Einstein and Oakley wheat, are showing signs of stress after the sodden January, he notes.

Grass weed control, from IPU + pendimethalin, seems to have worked well. “I used Defy in a few fields as a trial for an IPU alternative and it seems to have done the job well.

“We’ve also been spraying off leys and dirty stubbles with glyphosate.

“I use Touchdown Quattro, as it contains stickers which pay for themselves in the catchy weather we’ve been having.”

Muck burning plans ‘crazy’

Potato grading aside, the main tasks, weather permitting, are ploughing and spreading chicken muck.

“Considering the price and availability of fertiliser this year, I think this may work out to be a worthwhile exercise.

“I’m disappointed to hear that this may be my last year of my being able to apply it, as there are plans to incinerate it, which seems crazy.”