8 October 1999

Simplicity best for profits

A simple system is proving

the most profitable

approach to arable farming

for one Kent family.

Brian Lovelidge takes a

closer look

FOR the past eight years, brothers Mike and Kevin Attwood have stuck to a 50:50 wheat/oilseed rape rotation, with predominantly one variety of each crop. Even with Agenda 2000 looming, they have no intention of changing that very simple formula because it has proved so successful.

Mike Attwood farms 647.5ha (1600 acres) of mostly silty clay near Faversham, within sight of the Isle of Sheppey, and a further 890ha (2200 acres) with his brother, mostly on the North Downs near Harrietsham about eight miles away. Father Frank looks after storage and marketing. Much of the land was acquired over the past 10 years. They plan to continue expanding to reduce machinery and overhead costs per hectare.

"Weve consistently proved that oilseed rape is easily the best break for wheat, although even with this seasons good average Apex yield of around 30cwt/acre, its profitability is questionable," says Mike Attwood. "The crops only significant problem is slugs."

Confirmation of the wisdom of the brothers virtually 100% first wheat policy is this years 11t/ha (4.45t/acre) average yield for Riband – 10% up on last year – and 13.1t/ha (5.3t/acre) for a small area of Equinox.

A small slip in the rotation provided further proof that the Attwoods are on the right track. In autumn 1996, 8.9ha (22 acres) of rape at Faversham failed. Rather then re-drill, Mike Attwood replaced it with a second wheat, and out of curiosity drilled a third wheat in the field last autumn.

Although the second wheat yield dipped, he was unable to determine by how much. But having invested in RDS Ceres yield meters for his two 8m New Holland TX68 combines, he was able to record the third wheats yield. "It did only about 7t/ha and that is a big drop from first wheat," he says. "We will definitely be sticking to our first wheat, oilseed rape rotation."

The crops higher-than-average fertiliser and herbicide costs put it at a further disadvantage, as the tabled gross margin analysis shows.

Bulk store

To accommodate the overspill resulting from increasing yields and land acquisition, Mr Attwood recently invested £170,000 in a 2,500t bulk store and 27t/hour Law-Denis drier at Faversham. The £86,000 drier was installed by himself and farm staff, namely sprayer operator Richard Pendry and tractor drivers Ian Gent and Chris Ansell.

The main reason for the high yields is the fairly generous use of inputs, say the brothers. These are somewhat inflated by their slug problem and severe enhanced metabolism blackgrass resistance on 405ha (1000 acres) of silty clay land.

Rape establishment costs are relatively low. When the soil is moist enough, as it is this season, a seed-bed can be produced by a single pass with 7.3m discs and an 8m press in tandem behind a 280bhp John Deere 840. It is drilled with a 6m Accord pneumatic at a fairly high seed rate of 10kg/ha (8.8lb/acre) to allow for the inevitable plant losses through slug damage.

The seed-beds are flat rolled after drilling and then receive half-rate metaldehyde pellets. Last autumn, up to three more half-rate doses of this product and one of half-rate Draza (methiocarb) were necessary. The crop also gets reduced-rate autumn and spring fungicides against light leaf spot and Phoma, the spring dose being timed to control growth, plus a full-rate treatment for sclerotinia prevention, and insecticides as and when necessary.

All the rape is swathed. This was started on June 23 this year, with harvest from July 8 – 19, and ended four days before combines went into wheat. The campaign, which continued with only minor breaks for rain, was completed on August 7, about 10 days earlier than average. Rape stubble ploughing, followed by sub-soiling, is started immediately the combine leaves the field. Blue mould in wheat seed can be a serious problem in dry seed-beds on the silt land, so preparation with an 8m Dowdeswell power harrow is delayed until the soil is moist enough for good seed germination. Drilling usually starts on September 15-20 and is completed in the first week of October. Seed rate is fairly high, 251kg/ha (2cwt/acre) to allow for some plant losses to slugs. All the seed is farm-grown from C1 stock.

"Last autumn we struggled to get the last 81ha of wheat in," says Mr Attwood. "The land was too wet for drilling, so we broadcast the seed with an Amazone spreader and upped the rate to 2.25cwt/acre and then power harrowed and flat rolled it. Although the land looked like a billiard table afterwards, the crop emerged OK and yielded as well as any."

Various herbicide sequences were used against the resistant blackgrass on the advice of Mr Attwoods agronomist. Last season the best control was achieved with full-rate Avadex (tri-allate) very early post-emergence, then full-rate Hawk (clodinafop-propargyl + trifluralin) as soon as the blackgrass was large enough to hit with the spray. Where necessary, another dose was applied to take out late emergers.

The fungicide programme was based mostly on half-rate Landmark (epoxiconazole + kresoxim-methyl), Ensign (fenpropimorph + kresoxim-methyl) or Amistar (azoxystrobin) at the T1 and T2 timings and a low-rate conazole at GS59. In addition, full-rate chlormequat plus fifth-rate Moddus (trinexapac-ethyl) was applied with the T1 fungicide.

Terpal (2-chloroethylphosphonic acid + mepiquat chloride) was pencilled in for GS32-37 application, but because the crop looked like standing well, it was foregone. Everything remained upright.

"Although the cost of strobilurins worries me, I think that their use was one reason for our high yields," says Mr Attwood. "Another was the good growing conditions, particularly plenty of sun during flowering." &#42

Grossmargins (£/ha)

3rd wheat 1st wheat

Variable costs

Fertiliser 61.75 46.93

Fungicides 60.00 64.00

Herbicides 83.00 33.00

Pgr 3.00 8.00

Misc 4.00 4.00

Slug pellets 6.25 22.00

Seed 30.00 30.00

TOTAL 248.00 207.93

Output

Yield (t/ha) 7.0 13.0

Value (£70/t) 490.00 910.00

Area aid 235.00 235.00

TOTAL 725.00 1145.00

Less var costs 248.00 207.93

Gross margin 477.00 937.07

Difference + 460.07