Wheat grower makes years of experience pay
Most arable farmers draw
upon years of experience
when planning wheat
husbandry. But one Norfolk
farmer has a good deal more
experience than most, as
Edward Long reports
NORFOLK arable farmer John Kendall has grown wheat in each of the past seven decades, so has direct experience of the revolutionary changes from horse-and-cart to modern precision farming.
The 87-year-old cropping enthusiast has seen yields rise more than fourfold since he started farming shortly after World War Two. He still manages 48.6ha (120 acres) of wheat on 132ha (327 acres) of fine sandy loam and hopes to see a 14t/ha crop in his lifetime.
After three years in prisoner of war camps and eight years with ICIs Agricultural Division either side of the war Mr Kendall took over the familys Grove Farm at Ingham in 1948. At the time it was run with 17 horses and two tractors, a Ford Standard and a Fordson Major.
His first job was to sell the horses and buy a new tractor, combine and corn drill. A new grey Fergie cost £228 and an Allis 60 trailed bagger combine £460.
The combine only had a 1.54m (5ft) cutter-bar, so could only cut a few acres a day. In a 15-hour day it coped with 2.8ha (7 acres). So half the wheat was cut with a binder and stacked.
"When I took over, a crop of Yeoman or Wilma wheat yielding 10 coombs, or 22.5cwt, an acre (2.8t/ha) was reckoned to be a good crop. But having been involved with ICI trials I knew much higher yields were possible," Mr Kendall says.
His first crop of Bersee wheat went in on Oct 15, 1948, the new combine drill working at a seed rate of 157-188kg/ha (10-12 stones/acre). When threshed from the stack it yielded almost 5.4t/ha (2.2t/acre).
"That was a good result considering the soil is not the best wheat land and the only fungicide available was Agrosan seed dressing. The only weed killer was the MCPA-based Agroxone, which, to confuse the enemy, was known during the war as CLC or Corn Land Cleaner."
It was in the 1950s that wheat yields started to rise. A local farmer showed what was possible when he achieved 9.4t/ha (3.75t/acre) from Eclipse. That was the trigger for Mr Kendall to aim for higher yields. He knew his soil did not have the potential of the best clays, but felt there was scope for heavier crops.
Other varieties tried over the next two decades included Little Joss, Professeur Marchal, Cappelle Desprez, and Rothwell Perdix. In the 1970s and 1980s he grew Maris Huntsman, Hobbitt, Virtue, and Norman.
"Cappelle was grown for years, as it was reliable and with good field tolerance to disease it was ideal for a zero-fungicide system. It was relatively short, so was Bersee, but Professeur Marchal was far too tall. Perdix yielded well with us in its first year, but succumbed to a severe yellow rust attack in the second. Bersee yielded up to 2t/acre, Cappelle up to 3t, and by the time we had Huntsman we regularly combined 3t. Norman pushed the yield out to 3.5t."
Development of semi-dwarf wheat was a break-through. Mr Kendall was aware of the potential available, as he was on NIAB Council for 15 years until 1983.
Another breakthrough was the development of fungicides to control foliar disease. "Once these were available and Hobbit launched I realised we could exploit the new agronomic tools to grow wheat properly."
Now two-thirds of the wheat on the farm is Claire, the rest Deben. Mr Kendall is a keen agronomist and spends a lot of time in his wheat. Seed crops are grown for Nickerson, and he has close contact with wheat breeder Bill Angus.
Highest yield achieved so far is 12.5t/ha (5t/acre) from 12ha (30 acres) of a sister line to Deben. The best average is 11t/ha (4.4t/acre).
The first wheat to be drilled last autumn was Deben on Sept 22, at a seed rate to give 99 /sq m. The last 9ha (22 acres) of Claire went in during early December at 311 seeds/sq m.
"Our fertiliser policy has also changed dramatically. In the old days when the combine drill was used we put on 2 bags an acre of ICI No 4, a 10:20:10 compound down the spout. But when I slashed the autumn nitrogen I switched to ICI No 6, 4:26:10. Now an average of 220kg/ha of N is used and P and K are only applied to root crops in the rotation."
"As the theoretical maximum wheat yield is over 20t/ha, I feel a 12t average yield target for the farm is realistic.
"I would like to see 14t, but stiffer strawed varieties capable of taking more nitrogen are needed before this is likely. I hear these are in the pipeline," he says. *