Agrii investing £20m on crop disease research

The business of advising growers is changing, and simply recommending which inputs to use and when will no longer be enough with science and innovation being vital in overcoming future agronomy challenges.

This is why Agrii is investing £20m over five years in expanding its research programme to develop new solutions to key challenges, such as controlling blackgrass and the rising threat of septoria and fusarium.

Back in 2012, UAP and Masstock formally announced they were joining forces to form Agrii. This created a company with more than 300 agronomists influencing farmers equating to 25% of the UK cropped area.

“If you add in those who are buying inputs, the number is much higher,” says Agrii’s head of technology and services, Clare Bend.

R&D expansion

  • £20m investment over five years
  • 25% increase in replicated trials
  • Five major agri-technology centres established
  • 60 additional R&D sites developed including 25 main iFarms
  • Co-ordinated Growing Programmes upscaled
  • Broader crop coverage and investment
  • Tripling of the potato R&D budget

“We knew we needed to step up investment in R&D to provide the best possible agri-intelligence base for a truly technically driven and innovative company.

“This is because we believe the solutions to the increasing agronomic challenges UK growers face are less likely to be found through inputs alone, explains Mrs Bend.

They are more likely to be achieved through integrated agronomy, making the most of every performance-enhancing and risk-managing opportunity.

“Therefore, research-based innovation will become an increasingly important for successful businesses, both growers and their suppliers.”

One advantage agronomy service companies such as Agrii offer over manufacturers is that they are not simply carrying out efficacy trials to get products approved.

“We take them and go much further, looking at how they perform at lower rates and how new active ingredients compare with currently available competitor products. We can also look at the broader picture by investigating how varieties, agchemicals, nutrient supply and cultivation systems all interact.”

For example, in a recent plant growth regulator trial, there were six varieties, two different seed rates with two different rates of nitrogen. “We wanted to see what happened to PGR performance if you front-loaded the nitrogen programme.

“With these larger trials, we can tailor advice from our agronomists to different situations,” she says.

So what has Agrii achieved in the first two years of its five-year process of developing and implementing an R&D strategy that goes far beyond traditional agronomy trial work? Mrs Bend explains that the first task was to find the knowledge gaps.

“There is much good work being carried out by the John Innes Centre, Rothamsted Research and the various universities. But we are not looking to duplicate work, it is finding the gaps and plugging them,” she says.

To help identify the gaps and oversee the entire strategy, Agrii has set up an independent R&D strategy board headed by James Burke of University College, Dublin.

The company is also looking to build on current projects and one example is the HGCA fungicide dose work, which is carried out on a limited number of varieties in any one year.

This is useful to pull out differences in disease control, but in the Agrii trials, there are 14 varieties and each is replicated plus there are six different fungicide programmes at three sites. As well as disease levels, green leaf area, any height effect and grain quality are all monitored.

“These are massive trials, but we gain a much higher level of detail to base our advice on,” she says.

The board also helped identify any “pseudo-science” and had an input on the research priorities.

“Blue-sky research needs scientific justification before we invest in it, as you can end up wasting time and money on ideas that have no hope of success or have been tried before and failed.”

The second stage was to prioritise the work and Agrii started by asking farmers and agronomists what they thought were the research priorities.

“Maximising gross margins topped the list and disease control was second followed by soil health,” she says. “And these will feature highly in our work.

Agrii R&D Strategy: 5 key research areas

1. Genetics. Agrii is identifying superior genetics and Clare Bend believes many future solutions will come from breeding and that progress will speed up with the use of new DNA marker technology.

“We are not breeders, but we are doing a lot of work on early-stage varieties, trying to break them under extreme conditions and selecting the best for different situations. We are even looking at European genetics.

“It is not just about being top of the Recommended List. Take a variety of wheat that is 5% below the top yielder, but is really good against blackgrass. This could equate to a 30% improvement in yield against the top RL variety. Therefore, you need to look at the broader characteristics,” she says.

Fusarium resistance is another valuable trait that she believes could be increasingly crucial as more anaerobic digestion plants come online with more maize being grown in new areas.

Growing wheat after maize is a key risk factor and current fungicide products at best suppress the disease, as they are not curative, she warns.

2. Nutrition and soils. Being one of the founder companies, Agrii is directly involved with the new Soil and Water Management Centre at Harper Adams University.

Crop nutrition also plays a key role and Agrii’s work on nutrients shows the company’s commitment to advice and is not just about selling products. “Half of the trials at our Agrifocus site last year were looking at the best way to deliver nutrients, including many systems we do not sell,” she says.

3. Precision agronomy and decision support Precision agronomy is one area where Agrii is looking at innovative ways of tackling key problems.

One example is its involvement in the Eye Weed project at the University of Reading which is developing targeted spraying technology.

Mrs Bend believes that as Atlantis (mesosulfuron + iodosulfuron) efficacy falls, there will be a need for more stacking of residuals, but this brings more crop safety concerns. “More targeted spraying could be one way to reduce the risk of crop effects from these residuals.”

Decision support for septoria is another priority area and the company has brought in researcher Francesco Salinari who studied at the University of Turin. She is currently looking at making the septoria prediction model more reliable.

Another area is aphid forecasting and Dr Salinari is hoping to harness data from the company’s expanding network of weather stations which are used for fruit and vegetable modelling, and broaden it out into combinable crops. She is currently looking at a T-sum type of model for aphids this autumn.

“It alerts agronomists if the new generation of aphids are flying and if they need to treat crops.”

4. Crop protection. There are many disease challenges with the efficacy of triazoles slipping, the future threat to some triazoles from the EU Endocrine Disruptor review, the vulnerability of SDHIs having a single mode of action and the loss of flusilazole.

“Therefore, we have been looking at non-triazole programmes,” she says.

Again septoria is a key disease priority and Mrs Bend believes timing of fungicide applications will become more important as efficacy falls with the declining curative effects of the triazoles and the future loss of SDHIs.

5. Emerging technology. Finally, Agrii is looking at new emerging technologies and how to best implement them. This includes biopesticides and fertiliser enhancements.

“But it’s not just about what came top on the list, we also have to second-guess what is important in the future. For example, biopesticides were lower down on the list, but could have a key future role.

“We need to set the agenda rather than merely reacting and that is why we are involved with biopesticide work.”

The priorities were whittled down to 50 themes for each of the regions (east, west and north), as some are more relevant in different parts of the UK.

“Once we had defined the priorities, we next had to set out what the trials would be. For example, what do we want to do on blackgrass rather than just say more work is needed,” she says.

The final stage is delivery and this involves looking at staffing, kit and other resources. A SCOT (strengths, challenges, opportunities and threats) analysis on infrastructure highlighted the investment needed.

“We have invested £750,000 in new trials equipment over the past two years to improve efficiency and this has allowed a greater use of GPS to measure out trial plots.”

The company is now engaged in a major expansion of its research sites, which includes a multimillion pound redevelopment of its Throws Farm headquarters including the addition of a major new conference centre.

There are also plans for a new Agrii Crop Technology Centre at Bishop Burton College headed up by Jim Carswell. And new permanent facilities have already been installed at the AgriFocus site, near Marlborough and at the East Malling Research Station in Kent.

In addition to the centres and a range of additional trials sites, there is a network of 25 main iFarms, which replace the Masstock Smart Farms.

On these commercial farms, solutions will be implemented and used to host open days, which are valuable in helping get the messages and technology out to farmers.

Looking to the future, she believes the strong competition between agronomy companies will benefit all farmers and the wider industry, as others follow suit putting more focus on science and research.

“For example, we had a dedicated blackgrass trials site 10 years ago and others have stepped up with their own blackgrass trials centres.

“In the end, we are accountable to farmers and our future is tied to our customers’ success. Investing in their futures by helping them use science to overcome challenges through our network of agronomists is the best way of investing in our own.”

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