FW 75: Examining the seeds of change

The most significant spur to arable change in the 75 years since Farmers Weekly was first published was undoubtedly the 1947 Agriculture Act.

Coming hard on the heels of the World War Two Dig for Victory campaign, the Act guaranteed prices and assured markets for cereals, potatoes and sugar beet was a clear production incentive for farmers.

Between 1939 and 1944 the arable area rose 63% to nearly 6m ha (14,566,000 acres) as grassland was ploughed to make way for crops.

A few technological advances, not least inorganic fertiliser use and the ousting of horse power by tractors had taken place before 1934; but it was the war-driven 1947 Act, aiming to ensure the nation would never again be threatened with starvation by the likes of Germany’s U-boats, that led to most of the scientific farming developments that continue to this day.

Indeed Arthur George Street, in a 1950 postscript to his book Farmer’s Glory wrote: “There is little doubt that the present prosperity of British farming is mainly due to one man, who is now dead. His name was Adolf Hitler.”

The 1957 Agricultural Act and the late 1970s Food From Our Own Resources policy kept up the rate of progress which was whipped along by plentiful research from the likes of Rothamsted and NIAB plus a strong government-backed advisory service in NAAS, later ADAS.

It was only after 1984, following a bumper cereal harvest and growing public awareness of media-hyped “grain mountains” and “feather-bedded farmers”, that any brakes were touched as politicians began to shy away from funding so-called “near-market research”.

However by then the technological momentum was unstoppable; and more than two decades of mainly private initiative have since made most farms more productive and efficient, albeit not always more profitable thanks usually to factors beyond producers’ control.

Although the developments fall into three main areas – agrochemicals, plant breeding, machinery – there has been plenty of interaction. For example, it was only the breeding of semi-dwarf wheat varieties in the mid-1970s that really allowed cereal growers to fully exploit nitrogen fertiliser potential; and it was largely the arrival of broad-spectrum weed-killer paraquat in 1958 that gave them their first stab at direct-drilling and minimum cultivation.


Weed and disease control strides

In the 1940s scientists found that phenoxyacetic acids were particularly good at controlling broad-leaved weeds systemically in cereals. This led to the so-called ‘hormone’ herbicides, among the earliest being MCPA and 2,4-D.

Although they represented a technical breakthrough, these compounds’ full value was not fully exploited until herbicides for other crops in rotations became available. That was because cereals were always assumed to be ‘fouling’ crops, and mechanical and hand hoeing was still needed in the other parts of a rotation, partly to keep weed levels in cereals down.

Once chemical weed control was possible in other crops as well as cereals, reduced labour and increased mechanisation was possible. But even in the age when cereals were being stooked, farm workers must have been grateful to have had fewer thistles in the sheaves.

Since the mid-1970s triazole fungicides have been the backbone of disease control in a wide range of crops, most recently sugar beet.

Early triazoles, such as triademefon (Bayleton) and propiconazole (Tilt) were crucial in cereal programmes; and even when their relative weakness against diseases such as yellow rust were exposed, newcomers such as cyproconazole (Alto) and tebuconazole (Folicur) largely overcame the problem.

Even with shifts in sensitivity of diseases such as Septoria tritici, the latest triazoles, epoxiconazole (Opus) and prothioconazole (Proline) continue to be effective in the field either alone or in mixtures with other fungicides.

Newer groups have threatened to undermine the triazoles’ importance, but resistance to strobilurins has reinforced their value.

Even the latest SDH inhibitors, eg boscalid (Filan) still depend on triazoles to increase their disease control spectrum and effectiveness and guard against further resistance problems.

No other group of plant protection products has been been as useful, reliable and resilient as the triazoles.

Agchem advances

  • 1940s Hormone weed-killers – eg MCPA & 24-D
  • 1950s Mancozeb – protective potato blight fungicide still in use.
  • 1958 Paraquat – broad-spectrum contact herbicide that spurred interest in direct drilling of cereals.
  • 1960s Chlorothalonil – protective cereal fungicide still in use.
  • Chlormequat – cereal straw shortener and strengthener that helped control lodging, especially in taller varieties.
  • Sugar beet herbicides – chloridazon and phenmedipham.
  • Non-mercury cereal seed dressings – led to more sophisticated and environmentally-friendly treatments, including some for take-all.
  • 1960s & 1970s Pyrethroid insecticides – environmentally safer replacements for earlier organochlorine products and more toxic organophosphorus materials and carbamates. Pirimicarb (eg Aphox) for controlling virus yellows which nearly stopped beet production in the 1970s.
  • 1970s Triazole fungicides – see above.
  • Glyphosate – broad-spectrum systemic herbicide which soon took over from paraquat and led to some of the first herbicide-resistant GM crops.
  • Isoproturon – One of the first effective herbicides for controlling grassweeds in cereals. Led to increased winter cropping to maximise yields.
  • 1990s Use of sulphur in fertilisers.

Plant breeding

Cereal output boost underpinned by breeding

In wheat breeding the key advances in developing high-yielding varieties with improved quality began at the Plant Breeding Institute. They have been continued with remarkable success by commercial breeding programmes since PBI’s privatisation, with genetic gains being maintained at 0.5-1% a year.

Holdfast, a bread-making variety with excellent quality, arrived in 1935 but was unfortunately very susceptible to sprouting in the ear in wet harvests.

Holdfast was followed by Maris Widgeon and other varieties, but it was John Bingham, appointed wheat breeder at PBI in 1954, who many consider the originator of most modern varieties.

By the 1970s his team had produced important non semi-dwarf varieties, including Maris Huntsman, a variety notable for high yields and reliable performance.

He then collaborated with Francis Lupton in breeding Hobbit, which carried a semi-dwarf gene transferred from the Rockefeller Mexico and Chile wheat projects.

Although never fully recommended because of its breakdown to yellow rust, Hobbit was a breakthrough and led the way, through Virtue, Norman, Longbow, Avalon, Riband, Hereward, Consort, Rialto, Beaver, Solstice, Gladiator, Einstein, and Oakley to the very high yielding semi-dwarfs farmers enjoy today.

In the field of quality, Peter Payne’s identification of the protein sub units driving bread-making quality was a key development in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the early 1970s UK bread grists included only about 25% home-grown wheat, today the figure is about 70%.

The current overall benefit of the PBI and private sector wheat breeding to UK production are estimated at about £480m a year, funded from annual plant variety royalty payments of around £14.5m.

Notable plant breeding points

  • • 1964 Plant Variety Seeds Act – introduced royalty payment collection. Key to encouraging competitive commercial breeding programmes.
  • • Key for potatoes – discovery of H1 resistance gene to the golden potato cyst nematode (Globodera rostiochiensis) – and 1966 launch of Maris Piper, still the most widely grown variety.
  • • 1967 Monogerm sugar beet seed – along with herbicides cut need for hand labour.
  • • 1970s High yielding semi-dwarf wheats and improved quality varieties.
  • • 1970s oilseed rape – new crop with double-low types from 1978 revolutionising many rotations.
  • • 1980 Semi-leafless peas for easier combining.
  • • 1980s F1 hybrids for uniform field vegetable production to ease harvesting.
  • • Adapting forage maize for use in the UK climate – 100,000ha by 1994.
  • • 2004 Rhizomania-resistant sugar beet varieties.
  • • GM crops – eg herbicide resistant sugar beet. First UK trial (potato virus resistance) in 1987. Still not permitted commercially in the UK but grown on an estimated 800m ha (2 billion acres) worldwide.


Tramlines tell-tale indicators of progress

For well over a quarter of a century fixed passages for machinery to travel through crops been a familiar sight. Indeed many TV history dramas have been somewhat tarnished by glimpses of tramlines.

By the mid-1970s farmers were making multiple passes through crops to apply fertilisers and pesticides. Crop damage from many wheelings was unacceptable and greater accuracy in matching up passes was needed. Following the same path every time was the logical solution.

Many attempts to mark such paths were tried, including foam blobbers, discs attached to ropes, and ingenious ideas involving horizontal periscopes with boom end mirrors. But it wasn’t until 1974 that ADAS helped establish the first drill-driven UK tramlines, in spring barley, based on a modified Massey Ferguson 500 at the firm’s testing ground in Coventry.

At first many farmers were concerned that leaving unsown paths would jeopardise output. But ADAS trials soon showed that the 3-4% of resulting yield loss was more than offset by more uniform crops of generally better quality. The new paths also saved time by avoiding the need for making out.

One of the first manufacturers to fit tramlining equipment to its drills was Amazone; but it wasn’t until 1977-78 that most of the others had followed, several small companies in the meantime springing up to provide ‘bolt-on’ equipment.

The arrival of tramlines initially posed a ‘matching bout width’ challenge for many sprayer and fertiliser spreader makers; but eventually a 12m standard, based on three passes of a 4m drill or four of a 3m version, emerged as the standard, multiples of which led to today’s much wider systems.

Technology and machinery milestones

  • 1936 Harry Ferguson’s hydraulic three-point linkage for tractors (patented in 1926) introduced commercially.
  • 1937 First combine harvester suitable for European conditions introduced by Claas.
  • 1949 Massey-Harris 726 combine built in Scotland specifically for UK & Europe.
  • 1950s Steady combine development to include tanker versions, eliminating sacks and leading to bulk grain handling and drying.
  • 1960s Four-wheel drive tractors and more sophisticated hydraulics.
  • Self-propelled root harvesters – for sugar beet in 1950s & potatoes in 1960s.
  • From 1960s move from outdoor potato clamps to indoor storage and introduction of refrigeration for more assured quality.
  • Late 1970s Tramlines – see above.
  • 1970s Specialist materials handlers and move to big bags for seed and fertilisers.
  • Direct-drilling and minimum cultivations – ‘false dawn’, with eg Bettinson 3D drill, in absence of selective graminicides in 1970s followed by renewed interest in 1990s.
  • 1980s Computers – permitted more efficient record keeping and eased farm management decision-making. Widely taken up to help cope with growing assurance and subsidy justification demands and to exploit GPS opportunities through detailed field mapping and yield monitoring.
  • 2000s Global Positioning System technologies – crop inputs increasingly driven by satellites.


>> Celebrate Farmers Weekly‘s 75th birthday >>

Farmers Weekly Awards 2022

Enter or nominate now

Farmers Weekly Awards 2022

Enter or nominate now

Futures markets and commodity risk management online course:

  • Risk management strategies for a more predictable financial performance
  • Educated conversations when collaborating with your advisors
  • Negotiate better prices with your grain merchants

View course

Using contractors saves you time and money. Now you can book, track and pay all in one place. Register for early access today.

Find out more