28 May 1999

VINE REVAMPS TACKLE POLICY

Reshaping machinery and

cropping policy has been

the key task on the farm

hosting this years national

combinable crops event,

Cereals 99. Here we take a

detailed look at the changes

being made at Vine Farm,

Wendy, near Royston, Herts

FARMED for profit but with a strong emphasis on environmentally sound practice and supported by various conservation measures, is how Vine Farm at Wendy, near Royston, Herts, is being run.

Since German farmer and industrialist Carl-Friedrick Wentzel bought the 330ha (815-acre) calcareous clay loam farm in 1995 three more farms within a five-mile radius have been bought to take the total cropped area to 800ha (1976 acres).

The expanded unit is being farmed by Velcourt and managed by Tim Whitehead.

"The main change since more land has been taken on – the most recent was a 200ha block last autumn – has been a reworking of our machinery policy," Mr Whitehead says.

"The expansion was an opportunity to dilute our fixed costs, but this has to be managed carefully to ensure that our small staff can complete vital jobs on time so yields and profits are not compromised.

"We had to match our resources to the increased area. There was no way we could farm 800ha with the kit for 320, so change was needed."

The key to achieving cost cutting without upsetting timeliness is the leased CAT 45 rubber tracked crawler tractor, which pulls the 4m Simba Freeflow drill. This is used for the "EcoTillage" approach which involves minimum cultivation and less ploughing.

The aim is to get away from ploughing for winter crops, although it is still needed to control disease carry-over and ensure a good start for a spring crop. Last autumn about 60% of Vine Farm was ploughed, next autumn it will be just 40%.

The Simba drill rig provides some big savings in both time and money. As well as easing management pressures at a busy time of the year and ensuring improved timeliness, it is estimated to save £20-£30/ha (£8-£12/acre) compared with conventional establishment methods.

Machinery fixed costs have been cut by adopting a hiring/leasing policy which reduces the capital cost burden on the business. Wheeled tractors are hired direct from Case International either on a two-year fixed term, or for just 12 weeks.

Long-term deal

Two 100hp tractors are on the farm under the long-term deal, and two others, 130hp and 170hp machines, are on the short-term arrangement to provide back-up at peak times. The big Cat Crawler and the 24m Bateman RB15 sprayer are both leased.

Velcourt is committed to managing and preserving the asset of the land for the profit and enjoyment of the owner.

"Vine Farm is not just a money-making business, it is a valuable asset which needs managing properly," says Velcourt technical director, Keith Norman. "When economic conditions become tight conservation is usually the first to suffer. But we are in this business long term and have a five-year plan which includes tree planting, developing conservation areas and hedgerow management."

Over the past few years over 3 miles of hedges and 2000 trees have been planted at Vine Farm.

The company is also committed to providing effective training for its permanent staff. That is considered particularly worthwhile when commodity prices are low.

"Training is a vital component of our overall strategy. Decision making when grain is worth £70/t is more critical to the economic success of the business than it is when prices are around £120/t, as we can no longer afford insurance treatments, so every input has to be justified. We operate a whole team management approach and our tractor drivers go on agronomy courses so they provide another pair of trained eyes in the front line looking out for trouble."

A2000 WILL SET FUTURE CROPPING

CROPPING on the farm comprises 320ha (790 acres) of wheat and 90ha (222 acres) winter barley.

Only combinable breaks are grown. The breaks include 125ha (309 acres) of oilseed rape, 65ha (160 acres) of marrowfat peas and 95ha (234 acres) of winter and spring beans.

There is no place for linseed due to storage constraints and added management complications. The winter crop is considered to be non-viable, and the risk of a late harvested spring crop delaying wheat drilling is considered too great.

About 20% of the wheat is sown with the class 1 and 2 milling varieties Hereward, Rialto and Charger, and the rest with the barn-filling feed types Riband, Reaper, Beaver and Equinox. The barley this year is Gaelic, Intro, Regina and Vertige.

An industrial crop of HEAR rape occupies 38ha (94 acres) of set-aside. The rest of the rape is mostly hybrid types Pronto and Synergy, but with some Apex on the heaviest land. Bunting peas are grown on a canning contract, and the winter beans are all Clipper, with Mars used for the spring crop.

Future cropping policy will be determined by the EUs Agenda 2000 reforms. As continuous wheat is an option, Velcourt has initiated a trial to assess both the risks and opportunities involved with it.

"We are anxious to evaluate the new take-all seed dressings and are looking at gross margin differences between wheat grown continuously and where it alternates with a breakcrop."

The five-year rotation on most of the Herts farm involves wheat, barley, rape, wheat and peas. Beans replace peas on the heaviest land.

Under the present reform proposals a hard look at the economic prospects for the pulses, particularly the beans, will be needed. Peas are grown on a contract, so they are less likely to be dropped.

On the surface the future for rape looks bleak, but Mr Norman cannot imagine that politicians in Brussels or the food industry would let the crop die.

It is likely that the future rotation on the heaviest land will be wheat, barley and a break, with peas retained on the lightest land to provide a break for a five-year rotation.

There are more winter beans this season than had been planned, as it was impossible to drill rape at the right time last autumn on the most recently acquired land.

Beans are grown to maximise the area of first wheat, the pulse crop is worth an extra 1t/ha for the following wheat. Second wheat is avoided wherever possible, as it needs extra N, P & K, so costs more to grow.

Vine Farms five-year rolling average yield of wheat is 9.7t/ha (3.9t/acre) and rising, with barley at 8.7t/ha (3.5t/acre), rape 3.3t/ha (1.3t/acre), winter beans 4.7t/ha (1.9t/acre), spring beans 5t/ha (2t/acre), and peas averaging 5.1t/ha (2t/acre).

The future marketing strategy is likely to be geared more towards value-added crops grown on contracts to provide market security and iron-out fluctuating prices.

TARGETING INPUTS IS SKILLED JOB

MOVING from insurance treatments to a more targeted approach based on threshold triggers involves a higher degree of management and commitment from the entire farm staff.

Inputs need to be matched to crop need, the season and situation. Velcourt issues guidelines to its managers, but these are not blueprints that must be slavishly obeyed.

The managers have the flexibility to adapt them to meet the in-field need, which is where the training and interpretation of what can be seen pays off.

Petal testing to determine the sclerotinia threat to rape is now a regular on-farm job each summer, and DNA/PCR analysis for diagnosing eyespot infection in wheat is being done early in the year.

"This is the way we are going," says Mr Norman. "This season we have tested five or six fields at Vine Farm in an attempt to get a handle on the eyespot threat to our crops so we can decide whether to invest in an early fungicide. It appears to be a potentially useful diagnostic test, but it needs to be refined and developed for practical use."

For the past few years the amount of nitrogen top-dressing needed has been determined following soil core sampling in February to check on the amount of residual and mineralised N available. The aim is to avoid costly over-use of applied N to reduce the risk of leaching while ensuring the crop is not starved.

Core results show that in most cases Vine Farm manager, Tim Whitehead, who walks his crops several times a week, can assess fairly accurately what is likely to be available. The fertiliser policy is to maintain the P and K status at 2+.

The only exception to the no-insurance treatment policy involves pgr use. Cereal crops must be kept standing otherwise grain quality can be wrecked and combine output reduced, which in a wet harvest can have severe knock-on consequences for other crops.

Mr Norman believes a well managed pgr programme provides more than just lodging control. By manipulating spray timings the physiology of plants can be altered to boost yields.

To achieve a target population of 550-650 ears a sq m at the cutter bar, seed rates for wheat are matched to drilling date, seed-bed conditions and variety.

Vigour tested seed, mostly C2 grade, is used at a rate to give 180 seeds a sq m for an early September drilling in a good seed-bed. This is increased by 20-30/sq m a week. For barley the target establishment is 280 plants a sq m which should provide 1000 ears sq m at harvest.

Between 30% and 50% of the wheat is drilled with home-saved seed, but as Mr Whitehead is a certified inspector, it is all produced to the higher C2 standard. Crops grown from it are also given a slightly higher level of fungicide inputs.

The weed control policy is geared at killing the highly competitive wild oats, blackgrass and cleavers. But a few speedwell and chickweed plants are tolerated.

"Like almost everything else we do nowadays we assess the threat to the crop before we spray. By reducing the fixed costs and adopting a policy of targeted inputs we can harvest a decent yield and optimise our profits without damaging the environment. We are now facing a period of change, but by adopting a sustainable system we will weather whatever storms appear over the horizon," Mr Norman concludes. &#42

VINE FARM

Area 800ha.

Soil type Calcareous clay loam

P&K status 2.

Cropping Wheat 320ha, winter barley 90ha, oilseed rape 125ha, peas 65ha, winter beans 50ha, spring beans 45ha.

Staffing Manager Tim Whitehead plus two permanent staff and up to 5 casuals at peak times.

Machinery

2 permanent 100hp wheeled tractors, plus 1 x 130hp and 1x 170hp for busy periods, all hired. 1 x 230hp CAT 45 rubber tracked vehicle which is leased.

1 Simba 4m Freeflow drill.

1 Bateman RB15 24m self-propelled sprayer.

1 Case 30t/hour capacity Axial Flow combine, which is hired and a share of another used on a nearby Velcourt farm.

Pigeon-proof rape?

A new high leaf glucosinolate rape from the John Innes Centre has proved a major switch-off for pigeons. They do not like its taste, and as they have kept away from it in three Velcourt trials across the country when neighbouring crops were heavily grazed, they clearly do not like the smell. When broken the leaves release volatile chemicals which act as a deterrent.

New products scrutinised by Velcourt

&#8226 At the heart of the Arable Farming area Velcourt is putting a batch of three new cereal fungicides thorough their paces. The three, CGA 279 from Novartis, Cyanamids new triazole metconazole, and Du Ponts new strob-type Charisma, have been used with partner products in Riband.

"Strob effects are claimed for Charisma and it will be interesting to see if it delivers them," says Mr Norman. "The Novartis strobilurin also looks very interesting. Unlike the existing strobilurins which each have specific weaknesses, the evidence suggests CGA 279 controls the rusts, Septoria, and mildew. It could be the next step forward for strobilurins."

&#8226 Nearby the System 2000 plots aim to show how new technology can be exploited to reduce both autumn and spring workloads and the fixed cost burden. New seed treatments for BYDV control have been used so there is no need for broad-spectrum cypermethrin sprays in the autumn.

&#8226 The new take-all seed treatments from Monsanto and AgrEvo are also being evaluated. As the AgrEvo product also has activity against foliar disease, it is being tested to its limits. The plan is not to use follow-up fungicides until flag leaf emergence to cut out two sprayings. Yield implications of this "keep-out" policy will be assessed.

&#8226 Some new herbicides, Rhone-Poulencs Ingot, Du Ponts Lexus Millennium and Monsantos broad-leaved killer JV485 followed by Monitor, have been used on wheat grown in artificially weedy plots. Monsantos new sulfonyl-urea is the first product to be targeted at sterile brome.

&#8226 A static demonstration of the EcoTillage system, which will be used to establish crops on 60% of Vine Farm next season, will also be demonstrated.