16 June 1995

Suck it and see just wont do

Science-based advice is the key to expansion plans at Morley Research Centre. Charles Abel visited Norfolk to find out more

KNOWING how and why crops respond to inputs is vital to making husbandry changes with confidence. Advice from trial-and-error experiments may work some years, but it lacks long-term reliability.

That is the principle underlying work at Morley Research Centre, 10 miles south-west of Norwich.

But convincing farmers of its value is not easy, admits MRC director, Robert Cook. "It is a dilemma not made any easier by the small yield and profitability improvements at the moment. The advances we are looking for are very small, yet farmers want something very visual."

Added to that is the trend for fewer farmers to make input decisions on their own. "The number of potential customers is falling locally. That is why we want to work outside Norfolk and Suffolk more," comments Mr Cook.

Changes to the funding of near-market research are also having an effect. Money from the Sugar Beet Research and Education Commit-tee used to account for 40% of the centres income. "Sponsor and contract work is now several times greater than that," says Mr Cook.

Annual farmer membership currently stands at 700, representing 250,000ha (625,000 acres). Add life and corporate members and the area rises to 300,000ha (750,000 acres). But 70% of the membership remains in Norfolk and Suffolk.

Mr Cook aims to have 50% of membership outside those counties within five years. A "national" membership already exists, with subscribers from most areas. But rather than launch a UK-wide membership drive, Mr Cook is focusing on the east.

Growth will be "organic", he stresses. Expanding sites and services in East Anglia and Lincoln-shire will continue, plus the West Midlands for sugar beet growers. "It makes sense, we have a national expertise in beet production."

He is scathing of "suck it and see" agronomy trials. "There is a lot of hog-wash about cutting doses and timings to get big improvements in profit."

Such trials merely report what worked last year, without identifying if they will work next year, he says. "They dont advance knowledge. We want to know why things work. If we understand the how and why, we can tell farmers what will happen with more certainty.

"Good science will be needed more and more to cope with lower prices in future. Farmers just wont want to take the risks they do today," he concludes.