How slugs in wheat are being tackled through farm-based research

Watkins 788 wheat

Watkins 788 © Tom Allen-Stevens

Cambridgeshire grower Tom Pearson believes farmer-led trials are an integral part of the regenerative agriculture system he’s developing at Manor Farm, Caxton.

They are also essential for research into areas of farming that wouldn’t otherwise get commercial interest.

See also: Farmers reveal results of combine weed seed destroyer trial

Tom is taking part in a groundbreaking trial of a wheat that’s never been grown before in the UK and believed to be resistant to slugs.

“Large agricultural companies with sizeable R&D budgets wouldn’t touch this trial,” he says.

“But if there is a slug-resistant trait in this wheat, it will be hugely valuable for farmers, allowing us to move away from our current reliance on chemical control. 

“So farmers have a choice – either we sit by and carry on spending year after year on slug pellets, or we do something about it, and potentially take a step change in how we farm.”

Along with nine other UK farmers, Tom has planted a small plot of an old landrace variety, called Watkins 788, within his first wheat crop Nelson – a German E high-protein milling wheat.

Nelson wheat

Nelson wheat variety © Tom Allen-Stevens

Co-ordinated by the British On-Farm Innovation Network (Bofin), the trials are to test in the field the results of lab-based feeding trials carried out by John Innes Centre, Norwich, several years ago.

As part of the Defra-funded Wheat Genetic Improvement Network (WGIN), the scientists lab-tested a diverse range of wheats – known as the Watkins Collection – that had never grown commercially in the UK, and with genetics very different from modern wheat varieties.

They identified one in choice-chamber feeding trials – Watkins 788 – that was consistently spurned by slugs.

“The only way the scientists would know for sure if this trait exists is if the same results are found in the field where the slugs don’t have a choice,” says Tom.

He adds that scientists did not think any farmer would want to grow this wheat, though – it does not yield and, like any landrace variety, it is difficult to manage once it gets past stem extension.

“But this is just the sort of project that interests us. It takes us out of the mundane traditional ag, and allows us to think beyond what we’re doing today.

“And if there was a slug-resistant trait the scientists could breed into modern wheats, that would just be awesome.”

The job of establishing and monitoring the trial plots has come to farm manager Rhys Jones, who joined the 475ha arable business from Dyson Farming in September 2022.

Bringing innovation into an arable system is a part of the job he enjoys.

“The day-to-day of arable farming can draw you in, so it’s good to do something a little bit different,” he says.

Tom Pearson (left) and Rhys Jones

Tom Pearson (left) and Rhys Jones © Tom Allen-Stevens

What is the Watkins Collection?

This is a collection of 827 landrace varieties brought together in the 1920s and 1930s before systematic plant breeding began.

Trial design

The trial protocol for the slug-resistant wheat was drawn up by Bofin, working with Harper Adams University’s professor of invertebrate and pest management, Keith Walters.

“We established two square plots of Watkins – each a tramline width – and took matching areas of the Nelson into the trial as the farm-standard comparison,” explains Rhys.

It was direct-drilled into OSR volunteers at the beginning of November, like the rest of the field, which should have given the slugs every chance.

The trial was relatively easy to lay out, with two of the plots receiving no pellets, and full treatment on the other two, so Prof Walters could be sure any difference in the slug population or grazing damage was down to the wheat.

Tom Pearson places slug traps in the plots

Tom Pearson places slug traps in the plots © Tom Allen-Stevens

Tom and Rhys placed slug traps in the plots and monitored them twice a week for the first eight weeks after drilling.

“What was interesting was to see the difference in how the wheats grew – Watkins is a lighter shade of green, grows prostrate and has a thinner leaf,” says Rhys.

“You’d think that would make it more vulnerable to slug damage. But oddly we found hardly any slugs in any of the plots.” 

While they are no closer to knowing whether Watkins 788 does have a slug-resistant trait, this is not seen as a setback, insists Tom.

However, the hot summer and dry autumn conditions confounded conclusions that could be drawn.

Very few slugs appeared at establishment or soon after, when crops are at their most vulnerable to damage, and none of the wheat across the plots suffered significant damage.

“I’ve never known a year like it – it was good news for farmers, but sadly we are no closer to knowing whether this wheat does have a slug-resistant trait,” concludes Prof Walters.

The first year of the Slug-Resistant Wheat project, which started in April 2022 and is led by Bofin, is supported through a contribution from the Environment Agency as part of its Environment programme.

This supports partner-led projects in a Catchment Based Approach to improve the chemical and ecological quality of waterbodies.

‘Slug scout’ volunteers

Tests are now under way at the John Innes Centre to confirm this finding, as well as look at other aspects of feeding behaviour that have been requested by Bofin members involved in the project.

Scientists are also testing 77 recombinant inbred lines (RILs) that have been crossed with Paragon, a relatively modern spring wheat used frequently in research.

“We need well over 1,000 slugs to run these trials, so we’re appealing to farmers and others interested in getting involved to send in slugs,” says Simon Griffiths of the John Innes Centre who leads the research.

The volunteer “slug scouts” are provided with a pack that includes containers and postage-paid envelopes, as well as instructions on how to set up an effective field trap to capture slugs.

For more about the project and to enrol as a “slug scout”, visit the Bofin website.

Cereals 2023

The value of farmers sharing knowledge, resources and research is the subject of one of the seminar sessions at the Cereals mainstage, entitled “Working together for business success”.

Tom Allen-Stevens, founder of the British On-Farm Innovation Network, will be joined on the panel by Roger Dalrymple of Waitatapia Farming in New Zealand, Will Gemmill from Ceres Rural, Alison Rickett from Landscape Enterprise Networks and Nichola Bell of Farmdeals.

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