20 October 2001

Puts wheat in the shade

Seed triticale exceeded first wheat gross margins on one Hampshire farm. High yields and low inputs held the key

TRITICALE has become a first wheat in Rob Shepherds arable rotation at Allenford Farms, Damerham, Fordin-bridge, Hants. He farms in partnership with his landowner and looks upon triticale as a "very useful alternative combinable crop".

He has grown Trinidad triticale for four years, but this year the variety outperformed wheat. Grown after a ryegrass ley, it rattled through the combines yield monitor at 8.7t/ha (3.5t/acre), the highest yield achieved on the farms since it was first grown under a seed contract for British Seed Houses. The lowest yield Mr Shepherd has recorded so far was 7.7t/ha (3.1t/acre). "Id be happy with 3t/acre, which is what I budget for," he says.

When compared with wheat and barley yields on land that is not conducive to high performance, and when considering the relatively low input costs, triticale has earned its keep as an alternative cereal.

It fits well into the 809ha (2,000-acre) farms 526ha (1,300-acre) combinable cropping area. Fertility levels on the grade 3 arable acreage are relatively high, as a further 202ha (500 acres) of grass leys are included in the rotation, including ryegrass grown for seed, grazing and conservation. Some 80ha (200 acres) of permanent pasture make up the remainder, grazed by a 300-cow suckler herd whose progeny are finished at about 23 months. A 900-sow outdoor pig breeding enterprise, with two-thirds of the progeny fattened and the rest sold as strong stores, adds further organic matter.

As a seed crop, the triticale automatically takes a first wheat slot in the rotation. The 31ha (77 acres) harvested in August 2001 followed ryegrass seed, grazed after combining, then treated with 2 litres/ha of Roundup (glyphosate) and it was well coated with pig slurry before ploughing. Not surprisingly, no seedbed fertiliser was needed.

Mr Shepherd admits that the seed contract and its £85/t return are not available to every triticale grower, but he points out that the cost of Basic Seed at £520/t has to be offset against this. According to British Seed Houses, there is ample demand from commercial growers, many of whom plan to grow triticale under organic management systems. The grains inherently high lysine content makes it attractive to feed compounders specifically for pig rations.

Cheap to grow

To commercial and seed grower alike, one of the crops chief production advantages is that it is comparatively cheap to grow, when compared with wheat or barley. This is largely because it is less susceptible to common fungal diseases and to pests of most kinds and therefore requires lower agrochemical inputs. It also fares well when compared with winter wheat on marginal land.

Triticale straw tends to be chopped and ploughed in at Allenford Farms. "Its difficult to compress, and we dont consider it to be economic to bale," says Mr Shepherd.

Trinidad is a long strawed variety, hence a programme of two growth regulator applications – 2.25 litres/ha of 5C Cycocel followed by a litre of Terpal (2-chloroethylphosphonic acid + mepiquat chloride). First application in 2001 was at the end of April, with the second 10 days later.

The crop stood well, and lodging has not been a problem in previous years, either. The farms annual average rainfall is 914mm (36in), so triticales ability to withstand dry conditions has not so far been put to the test.

Although triticale can be sown with good results as late as February, the yield-topping Trinidad was drilled with the farms 6m pneumatic Tive drill on 16 October.

Target tiller population for Trinidad is 200-300/sq m, says British Seed Houses, with a recommended seed rate of 100-150kg/ha. The Allenford Farms crop was sown at 125kg/ha. "As a general rule, I go for a relatively low seed rate, both to control plant canopy and to save on input cost," says Mr Shepherd.

Spring nitrogen was applied on 21 March, providing 126kg/haN as liquid ammonium nitrate with sulphur. A month later a further 95kgN/ha was applied in the same way.

Spring herbicides were a tank-mix of 100ml of Boxer (florasulam) and 20g of Jubilee (metsulfuron-methyl), to control cleavers and other broadleaved weeds, in mid-April.

With seed costs of £62/ha, fertilisers at £48/ha and agrochemicals (including pre-ploughing Roundup) at £60, input costs totalled £170/ha. For comparison, a crop of Clare winter wheat on similar land incurred costs of £22/ha for home-saved seed, £44/ha for fertilisers and £115 for agrochemicals – a total of £181.

The big difference came with output. The Clare yielded 8.5t/ha and sold at £75/t to return £637.50/ha, while Trinidads 8.7t/ha should realise £85/t – a return of £739.50.

Gross margins (apart from labour and machinery costs) were therefore £456.50 for the wheat, while the triticale brought £569.50, before arable aid payment.

Says Mr Shepherd: "Its a good example of how a high yield, combined with controlled variable costs, can give a significant gross margin." Even if sold at feed market prices, the triticale would have matched the return from wheat, especially with lower seed costs.

He believes Trinidad definitely yields better than other triticale varieties, but he says that unlike other varieties it may occasionally require some fungicide treatment. Nevertheless, although he has noted some susceptibility to yellow rust, he has not been troubled by it. "This year, it did need a prophylactic spray because it was looking so good and there had been yellow rust predictions." Consequently 0.5 litre/ha of Epic (epoxiconazole) was applied in mid-May.

The area is often troubled by outbreaks of orange blossom midge, but it has never been seen or treated for on triticale. A more apparent plague in some years with fluctuations in local populations is rabbit damage, but again, not with Trinidad: "They just wont eat it."

One piece of advice he offers aspiring triticale growers is not to follow the crop with wheat, unless the follow-on crop is definitely intended for feeding. "There can be a volunteer problem, and if you have it, it sticks out a mile," he cautions.