18 January 2002

Does seed really need dressing?

Agronomic Intelligence: The Basis for Profitable

Production was the theme of the HGCA R&D conference

in Coventry this week. Andrew Blake, Andrew Swallow

and Tom Allen-Stevens report the highlights

NEW rapid diagnostic tests for seedling blight and bunt in wheat should spell an end to insurance seed treatments. That could save growers anything from £2.8m to £11.2m a season.

UK researchers funded by the HGCA have developed the sophisticated tests for bunt and michrodochium nivale. They mean test results will now be available in 24-48 hours, instead of the week or more required for standard agar plate tests.

Until now testing all the 350,000t of seed required to drill the UKs 2m ha crop was impractical. That was despite as much as 80% of seed lots falling below treatment thresholds.

"It doesnt make sense to treat for diseases that are not present," said Dr Valerie Cockerell of the Scottish Agricultural Science Agency. "Why spend £40/t on a treatment to combat michrodochium nivale when its not there."

The new test will be phased in from next autumn and should not make a substantial difference to the cost of seed-testing. "Seed treatments remain a vital part of the strategy, but where pathogens arent present why treat," Dr Cockerell concluded

Optimistic but not there yet

GREAT optimism for the year ahead, but its not all done yet was the feeling among delegates at the HGCA conference.

"Crops are extremely well established and theres real potential for high yields this year," said Hampshire Arable Systems Alan Bide. "The cold weather weve had recently has also helped enormously in checking growth and disease.

"But theres still a lot to do before harvest, and its all the more important to get nitrogen and fungicide timings right."

Impending environmental regulation, such as nitrate vulnerable zones and pesticide stewardship, did little to dampen buoyant spirits at the event.

More demands

"The fact is that society demands more from the farmer in terms of environmental regulation," acknowledged Jonathan Tipples, a Kent grower and NFU director on the Assured Food Standards board. "We just have to knuckle down and get on with it."

But UK growers remain at a great disadvantage to competitors in the Eurozone, said Wilts grower and NFU cereals committee chairman Richard Butler. "There are real grounds for optimism, but its a great shame some arable businesses will not survive the next few months.

"Latest Eurostat figures show net farm income for UK growers is only 58% of 1995 levels, whereas in Germany the figure is 128%."

There were also concerns for the 2002 crop. "How can you call this a brave new dawn when farmers have planted an enormous area of wheat, without any regard for what the market wants?" asked seed merchant Robin Appel.

Revamp need for the lists

BETTER crop and variety guidelines, more flexible seed suppliers and standardised precision-farming techniques are key things the industry needs to boost profits, according to Hants agronomist Alan Bide.

Despite excellent autumn crop establishment, on many farms there is plenty of scope for improving that "foundation of profit", he told delegates at the HGCA event.

"What we are trying to achieve is optimum yield with minimum effort and expense."

Much more can be made of breeders knowledge of their own varieties, suggested Mr Bide, of Hampshire Arable Systems. He also pleaded for the Recommended Lists to include guidelines on growth habit, tillering capacity, standing power and crop height, stem base diseases and rotational position.

"We need it to aid and abet our choice of appropriate crops and varieties."

Supplying seed in big bags tends to mitigate against precision sowing, he added. "We need to know that once our calculations are done the precise quantities, properly labelled with all the information on germination, vigour and thousand grain weight are delivered."

Otherwise there is too much temptation to use up any extra and negate benefits of sowing appropriate rates.

Seed suppliers must also allow growers to be more selective on dressings and dosing. "In many ways the seed trade has a bit of a Henry Ford attitude."

Precision farming has much to offer, but standard methods of interpreting aspects such as soil maps are urgently needed to make the most of it, Mr Bide added.

Tell us how to manage varieties and be more flexible about seed supply, urged Hants adviser Alan Bide (inset). Savings of up to to £11.8m on seed treatments were also mooted at the event.