Farming the driest land in Britain means Guy Smith, one of three finalists in the nabim/Crops Milling Wheat Challenge, can rely on two near certainties every year – milling wheat yields will be lower then he would like, but Hagbergs will be high.
Rainfall at Wigboro Wick, St Osyth in Essex, averages just under 500mm (20in) a year. “We are primarily a heavy land farm, which, with our climate, tells me I should be majoring on milling wheat,” says Mr Smith.
“We have the driest harvests and the highest Hagbergs in Britain. It may sound a bit of a boast but it’s true.”
About 240ha of wheat is grown for milling. Group 1 varieties have accounted for 80-90% of the wheat area for 20 years or more.
This season he is growing about 100ha each of Solstice and Xi19. Yields usually range between 8 and 8.6t/ha. “Xi19 yields well, but millers are getting increasingly sniffy about it.” He is trying 20ha of potential replacement Gallant this season.
Solstice has featured since it was first listed in 2002. “It has been a solid performer, but it’s now at risk from yellow rust and mildew. We need more milling varieties to come through.”
Despite that disease threat, only two fungicide applications were deemed necessary this season. Just 39mm of rain fell between April and June – dry even for this farm. All wheats received a late T1 spray of Cello (prothioconazole + spiroxamine + tebuconazole) and Gemstone (epoxiconazole + pyraclostrobin) at 0.5 litres/ha each, plus Bravo (chlorothalonil). A late T2, applied at early ear emergence, used the same chemistry less Bravo and included sulphur to build grain protein. Liquid N was applied on the ear, split into 2 x 20kg/ha applications to minimise scorch.
He is also growing 36ha of AC Barrie, an American hard red variety, on contract. It is replacing malting barley, dropped due to the poor price.
“I get a premium of £135/t and have locked 90t in at a base price of £100/t. It did 3.7t/ha when we had a look-see a couple of years ago, but this has not been the season for spring crops.”
Wheat is usually sold to local homes. “I tend to use traditional merchants in this area and one broker is my eyes and ears – I like to support them and they do a good job.”
Storage amounts to about 1500t. Mr Smith has his own mini laboratory, measuring the usual specific weight and moisture levels as well as Hagberg, protein and screenings. This allows him to blend when loading out to match grain specs to contract specification.
All grain leaves the farm – none is saved for seed. “It’s not an expensive input and it’s better for traceability.”
Seed is sown by weight, usually 160-170kg/ha, after a mainly min-till programme. “We use low seed rates at our peril. We start drilling in mid-September and seed can sit for 4-6 weeks before emerging.” Everything is dressed with Redigo Twin to control blue mould, and all second wheats are dressed with Latitude.
All operations are recorded in a customised online farm diary – the two full-time employees carry laptops and fill in field records as they go. “It’s a live document on the internet, and provides all the records we need,” says Mr Smith.
“It replaces a soil management plan, acts as a pesticide record and meets all assurance and cross-compliance needs – everything is there.”
As well as making the most of the farm’s commercial prospects, Mr Smith, a finalist in last year’s Farmers Weekly Countryside Farmer of the Year award, is also keen to maximise its environmental benefits.
Hedges, ditches, ponds and woodland are managed for wildlife, there are areas of flower-enhanced grassland and every field has a grass margin, many with wild flowers strips on the inner edge to reduce the risk of ergot spreading into the crop.
He has granted permissive access on many of the 30km of margins, and has erected noticeboards to inform visitors about crops and conservation work.
He believes environmental schemes could also help the bottom line. “I am trying to market a skylark loaf idea where consumers could buy bread they know is made from high quality ingredients, produced by farmers that encourage wildlife.
“It would be good to see the UK 100% self-sufficient in milling wheat, so we must encourage consumers to associate British wheat with good, wholesome quality and taste as well as high environmental standards.”
Martin Savage, trade policy manager, nabim.
Mark Ireland, Lincolnshire farmer and Farmers Weekly Arable Farmer of the Year 2005.
Robert Harris, freelance agricultural journalist