A long-standing culture of quality is helping to extract the best profits from crops grown on the heavy, silty clay soils at Deal Hall Farm on the Essex marshes, where Alan Ponder, one of three finalists in the nabim/Crops Milling Wheat Challenge, farms.
Marrowfat combining peas are grown for the Japanese snack market; linseed and oats also go for human consumption and lucerne for the discerning equine market.
But milling wheat is the key crop, accounting for nearly 60% of the 1560ha that Alan Ponder manages for Strutt and Parker Farms, near Burnham-on-Crouch.
“We have always had a clear focus on the end user,” he says. “All staff aim to achieve a standard that secures a premium for our crops.”
Feed and biscuit wheats have been tried, but, with quality almost a given, milling varieties produce better returns. Although rain is scarce – about 500mm (20in) a year – the deep soils retain what moisture there is, producing a five-year average yield of 8.7t/ha.
Mr Ponder grows 345ha of Solstice. “It’s a solid variety and does pretty well as a second wheat, which accounts for about 40% of the area.”
Batallion is being grown for the second year, on 226ha. “At 10.8t/ha, it yielded about 1t/ha more than Solstice last year. But it’s not popular and that could be its downfall.”
Hereward, grown for nearly two decades, can still match Solstice for yield and earns a better premium. “We’re growing 195ha – it starts from a higher quality base, and hangs on to it well.” Some goes to Warburtons, most to local homes.
Gallant is being tried as a Hereward replacement, and could be useful as an early driller. “If it does what it says in the tin, it should be good.”
Soissons continues to earn a place – the 139ha is booked at a £23/t premium and its earliness gets harvest off to a flying start.
“We like to be drilled up by the beginning of October,” says Mr Ponder. “This land gets very sticky once it starts raining.”
A 4.5m Simba Solo pulled by a Cat 865 breaks stubbles. A Rexius press follows and soils are left to green up.
Growth is sprayed off, then the Rexius returns ahead of the 8m Vaderstad drill. This is teamed with a Cat 765, recently fitted with GPS, and usually starts work in the second week of September, typically sowing 140kg/ha into dry seed-beds.
Everything is then rolled – slugs are rarely a problem on the well consolidated soils. On rare occasions when it is too wet to travel, ploughs and power harrows are pressed into action.
First wheats get 200-210kg/ha of nitrogen, second wheats 20kg more, based on N-Min samples. It is applied in three splits, juggled to produce optimum tiller numbers.
A further 30-40kg/ha is applied as solid ammonium nitrate at booting, to coax more yield and to top up grain protein.
The farm’s Sands and Chafer sprayers can cover the wheat area in about four days. A four-spray fungicide programme is standard.
Amistar (azoxystrobin) features strongly at T2 and T3 to promote greening to maximise grain fill and quality, and usually partners good doses of Opus (epoxiconazole) and Folicur (tebuconazole(, respectively.
“Brown rust is our main problem and it can come in quickly,” says Mr Ponder, who is BASIS qualified and does much of his own agronomy. “And we need to insure against fusarium.”
Two Claas 570+ rotaries ensure crops are gathered at the right moment. Grain is sampled from each trailer at intake, and again from each lorry leaving the farm.
All produce can be stored on wooden ventilated floors. Fans are linked to humidity sensors. “It seems to work – we’ve had just one load returned this year.”
About half the crop is sold before harvest, often at fixed premiums. “It’s pretty low-risk strategy given our climate. It costs about £90 to grow a tonne of wheat, so if we can lock into a decent margin we will.
“We like to keep things local – we have good contact with Essex millers, and have attended trips to Tilbury, Greens at Maldon and Marriages at Chelmsford, and some have visited the farm.”
Maintaining those links will be vital, says Mr Ponder. “The world is going to need more milling wheat. As long as there is a decent premium, we’ll continue to grow it.”
Martin Savage, trade policy manager, nabim.
Mark Ireland, Lincolnshire farmer and Farmers Weekly Arable Farmer of the Year 2005.
Robert Harris, freelance agricultural journalist