1 April 2000

Spray choice slashes costs

A different approach to product choice and the nerve to cut rates adds up to about £80/ha savings in variable costs for one Norfolk grower. Tom Allen-Stevens reports.

YOUVE trimmed the fat off the variable costs, sliced through your fixed costs and shaved a few pounds off your overheads. With grain prices heading even further downwards more savings have to made – but from where?

On many farms, theres still plenty of scope in the variable costs, believes Aubourn Farming agronomist Nick Bleach. One example is Gresham Farms in north Norfolk. The farm has been managed by Savills since the 1950s, and shortly before the Savills/Aubourn merger last year, Aubourn took on the agronomy.

"There hasnt been any one specific area where weve made a lot of changes. Its more a case of a lot of little things building into one solution. Overall the cost savings have been impressive," explains Mr Bleach.

The difference has been noted by farm owner Robert Batt: "Our spray costs in particular have come down considerably – the farm foreman finds it interesting how little chemical has been going on. This is the sort of saving we need with wheat at £60/t."

Mr Bleachs approach to chemicals has been to find the most cost-effective solution. He believes the key is to select a product and a rate that delivers results without spending more than you need. An example is the herbicide choice for sugar beet.

Metamitron and phenmedipham is his prescription here. He claims it gives a good broad-spectrum activity on the range of weeds found at Gresham. "We tend to stick with older sprays because you can spend a lot of money on newer products and rarely get your moneys worth. This year we intend to look more closely at the FAR technique to make even greater savings." This is a low dose application technique developed by Morley Research Centre.

Rates are kept low and crop monitoring tight. Mr Bleach maintains that this is the fundamental difference between himself, an independent agronomist, and a distributor: "Over 50% of our field inspections result in a no action approach. By definition this would be unviable for a commercial field walker. He would need to inspect less thoroughly or less often or sell a solution more often than we would consider necessary."

Because Mr Bleachs income is not tied to chemical throughput on the farm, he claims he prescribes much lower rates and has much more flexibility of chemical choice. "The actual saving on a can of chemical is fairly minimal; the big saving is on chemical choice and rates. This means we can cut the spray cost in half over the whole farm – and thats not unusual."

Fungicides receive similar treatment: "Were reducing down to half or even quarter rates with fungicide inputs, and still getting the same results. Its amazing how much scope there is."

But what about resistance? "I think the resistance issue has become very commercialised and used as an excuse to keep rates high. Increasing levels of product use may not be in the growers best interest. We look closely at what diseases we have to deal with and then tailor the product to match. If mildew is a problem, for example, were not just using Landmark (epoxiconazole + kresoxim-methyl). We use a mixed chemistry strategy and also add quinoxyfen," says Mr Bleach.

He also maintains strobilurins are more cost-effective if disease-ridden varieties are avoided. This means choosing the right variety can play an important part in making savings further into the season.

So Brigadier and septoria-prone Riband have been dropped from the wheat line-up. In are Claire and Consort. Claire ties in with another fundamental change at Gresham: early drilling at low seed rates. "Theres the opportunity here to drill early behind vining peas. This year we drilled at the beginning of September. The plants build more tillers and bigger roots, which helps to pile on the yield."

As well as reducing seed costs, this has had a knock-on effect on growth regulator usage. A split application of 3C chlormequat (5C Cycocel and Meteor are deemed a bit of a luxury) goes on at GS30 and 32. "There should be no need for Cerone or Terpal. The varieties were using stand fairly well where were using them anyway," maintains Mr Bleach.

Split dose

Charger comes in behind the sugar beet because it "yields well in late situations" and Consort fits in elsewhere in the rotation. The emphasis is on using each varietys characteristics in the rotation to maximise yield and chose varieties with good gross margin potential.

Barley varieties are more led by their malting contracts; Halcyon and Regina are the winter barleys with Optic put in after late-lifted sugar beet. The main focus here has been nitrogen rates and timing.

The aim, naturally, is to maximise yield while retaining a malting sample, but the major discussion topic is whether this should be achieved with a single or split dose. "The plan for this year is to do a split dose. The first goes on at GS29/30 with the second at GS32. In total were up to about 125kg/ha."

When it comes to crop nutrition in general, the Aubourn approach has been to look at soil fertility by doing detailed soil analysis and trying to release locked-up potential. This has led to a shift away from the traditional use of phosphate and potash.

An example is on the sugar beet where potassium sulphate is used rather than muriate of potash. The timing has also changed – it now goes on at emergence rather than in the autumn: "We put it on when the crop needs it, which means we can get away with less and get more out of it," maintains Mr Bleach.

Mr Batt is delighted with the new arrangement. "Its a bit like having your own pharmacist. If you have a cold you want paracetamol but often get talked into buying Night Nurse which has a load of ingredients you dont need. Thats what weve done in the past when buying inputs. Nicks good at prescribing precisely the active ingredient you need."

Old solution New solution Saving

Winter wheat

Sumi-Alpha (esfenvalerate) @ £6.00 cypermethrin @ £0.84 £5.16

Dursban (chlorpyrifos) @ £21.76 for wheat bulb fly Dimethoate + Li-700 @ £5.82 £15.94

Meteor @ £12.50 Chlormequat @ £3.10 £9.40

Agrys/Gemini (morpholine) @ £9.28 for mildew Quinoxyfen @ 50ml = £3.70 £5.58

Mantec (manganese) @ £2.56 Manganese sulphate powder @ £0.88 £1.68

GS32 –Alto (cyproconazole) + Mainstay Low dose Unix (cyprodinil) £21.20

(chlorothalonil) @ £39.70 + Landmark @ £18.50

GS39 — Folicur (tebuconazole) + Bravo Amistar (azoxystrobin) + Opus £0.45(chlorothalonil) @ £20.45 @ £20.00

Ear – Folicur + Bavistin (carbendazim) @ £10.16 Amistar + tebuconazole @ £8.06 £2.10

Sugar beet

Pre-em Advizor (chloridazon + lenacil) @ 23.38 Chloridazon (patch sprayed) @ £14.00 £9.38

Betanal Progress (desmedipham + ethofumesate Metamitron + phenmedipham £9.26 + phenmedipham) + Goltix (metamitron) + oil @ £26.90+ Actipron @ £36.16

All prices in £/ha