15 November 1996

WHEN EASTON PROMISE JUST MELTED AWAY

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It has been a year of mixed fortunes at FWs Easton Lodge farm. James de Havilland spoke to farms manager, John Lambkin, and heard about the highs and lows of his farming year

HOT on the heels of a dry 1995 has been an even drier 1996 with five inches less rain landing at Easton Lodge in the 12 months to the end of September.

The lack of water started to show up in May and June. It brought what promised to be the farms best wheat crops yet to a withering halt.

"Seeing such a superb crop melt to nothing has to be the years low point," comments John. "I am used to seeing wheat crops drop back due to low moisture after 21 years here but this season it was really disappointing to see such potential just disappear. I reckon the drought conditions lost us over 3t/ha."

Clearly disappointing, but he believes things could have been a lot worse if he had not stuck to his policy of early drilling.

"If we had drilled the wheats later we would have been looking at yields of perhaps only 5t/ha. Good equipment and early drilling last autumn saved our bacon."

Cereals apart, other crops have performed reasonably well, with the peas and rape producing yields of 3.75t and 3.8t/ha, respectively. A price of £195/t for the rape was also considered satisfactory.

This autumn John reports that the drilling has again gone well, but a lack of rain once more looks likely to threaten a carefully planned approach.

"We could not have been better placed to get the science dead right with our wheat drilling this year," he says. "Our home produced seed was bold, bright and completely free of fusarium and bunt.

"The seed-beds worked down well and we achieved my aim of good seed to soil contact. We also started to drill in August as planned, cutting back on seed rates to drill 130 to 135 seeds a sq m. But the vital final ingredient, rain, has passed us by."

By mid-October, much of the wheat had been in the ground seven weeks with no rain and germination overall being patchy.

"I thought we were smart by drilling early, but the lack of rain has put us back. The trouble is we have the full range of germination rates from zero to 100%. What I am now faced with is trying to make up the shortfall. It will not be easy."

By default, some farms which were held up waiting for seed deliveries now have better wheat emergence than Easton Lodge. But John maintains that early drilling and low seed rates remain the way ahead on the farm.

"The lesson I have learned this year is the value of getting the seed-bed right. I will be keeping an eye on compaction problems next year and will try not to bring up clods to the surface during cultivation."

To a degree this attention to seed-bed preparation is bearing fruit in the rape. Although drilled early into a dry seed-bed, the crop has emerged evenly. It also put down good roots early to make the most of what little moisture was available, a factor that will help it next year if that, too, turns out dry.

But the shortage of water appears to have had little effect on the oilseed rape, despite having been drilled at almost the same time as the wheat. A strong, even crop bodes well for next years harvest.

Machinery-wise, the 115hp Fendt GTA 395 tool carrier bought two years ago has proved itself to be a reliable workhorse. Used as a self-propelled sprayer during the spring, summer and late autumn and as an all-in-one cultivation and drilling rig after harvest, it is certainly a versatile machine.

"The rolling machinery replacement policy we started to implement four years back is paying off by reducing machinery maintenance and costs," says John.

"And we are now well enough equipped to cope with our early drilling demands. All I really need now is a set of new discs and a machine to make it rain," he adds with a smile. &#42


EASTON LODGE


&#8226 Location Wansford, Peterborough, Cambs.

&#8226 Size 248ha (613 acres).

&#8226 Soil type Free draining loam over-lying limestone.

&#8226 Main crops Cereals, sugar beet, oilseed rape, herbage seed.

&#8226 Staff Manager and one full time employee.