Get agronomy right for milling wheat success

Attractive premiums mean milling varieties could be the most lucrative option for second wheat growers this season. Tom Allen-Stevens reports

Milling wheats offer growers real potential in the second cereal slot, but they are often overlooked in favour of resilient barn-fillers.

Group 4 wheats such as JB Diego, Duxford and Grafton have curried favour among growers for their stable performance in the second wheat position, pushing some good milling varieties out of the frame.

And initial seed sales this season suggest demand for hard Group 4s this autumn is continuing to rise, at the expense of Group 2s and 3s, says David Waite northern commercial seed manager for Frontier. “We’re seeing a polarisation of the wheat market. I don’t see any negatives with varieties like Ketchum or Invicta. But everyone wants Santiago. Why? Because they want yield.”

But there’s firm demand from millers, according to NABIM’s trade policy manager Martin Savage, with some very attractive premiums on offer for buy-back contracts. “There’s a strong market for Group 2s. It comes down to knowing your market. Find out what opportunities there are from your local mills.”

Similarly, Group 3s and one or two soft Group 4s are in demand. Unlike other wheat outlets, biscuit-makers and distillers cannot switch to other commodities or buy from abroad.

Wheat director at Carrs Flour Mill, Julius Deane, says: “In a volatile market place, this is one that is reliable and here to stay.”

Scout and Invicta are expected to find favour as Claire becomes more outclassed, he says. “With the Group 4s, Viscount’s not bad and Beluga looks very interesting.”

As a second wheat, the combination of strong market demand and lower yield makes varieties with milling potential a very attractive option, on paper.

For example, when premiums are achieved HGCA figures suggest Group 1 Gallant and Group 2 Ketchum offer the highest returns of £1,950/ha apiece, with JB Diego and Duxford hovering around the £1,700/ha mark. Even without the premium, Ketchum equals JB Diego and Duxford and Gallant drops back to £1,626/ha (see graph).

So what’s holding growers back? Part of it is practical, says independent consultant Bob Simons. “It may not be worth putting a small proportion of your wheat acreage into a different variety that requires tailored agronomic care.” Separate storage may also be an issue.

“It’s also a confidence thing. It takes a while for a variety to prove itself in the second wheat slot.” Growers trust Cordiale, Solstice and Claire to perform, but these are hardly the highest yielders. Newer varieties are avoided because there’s little confidence in them, especially where there’s a quality spec to meet, he says. “You can’t readily get that confidence from trials data – field performance doesn’t always follow the numbers.”

So getting the best return boils down to getting the agronomy right. Central to this is a nutrition strategy that takes account of the wheat’s place in the rotation, advises Masstock’s technical manager Clare Bend.

“The principle is to apply more N earlier to a second wheat as roots become less effective later in the season due to the impact of take-all, which is just when they are needed to feed the ear. This will also build a bigger Green Area Index than target as canopy is likely to decline, again due to take-all.”

Establishing the crop with minimal tillage can help reduce the level of take-all compared with ploughing adds David Langton, crop nutrition specialist for Masstock. But establishment can be poor, especially if later-drilled, it’s a cold autumn or straw is chopped. “If you are in an NVZ, applying autumn N is a sticky area. Probably the best approach is to ensure a good spread of straw and chaff and a reasonably deep cultivation to get a good mix.”

Volunteers should be controlled to preserve quality aspects, continues Ms Bend. “This will also reduce the likelihood of disease carryover, such as eyespot, and foliar disease such as yellow rust. Take extra care where first and second wheats share a susceptibility to the same strain of yellow rust.”

Strobilurins have been shown to boost protein levels, but should no longer be relied on for septoria control, says Ms Bend. “Where volunteers are poorly controlled a T0 fungicide would be a useful management tool. New SDHIs used at T1 have given useful greening effects in second wheats. But effects on protein levels have yet to be proven.”

Case study: Chris Coates, Wisbech, Lincolnshire

Chris Coates is a seasoned second wheat grower and reckons milling varieties can make excellent second wheats. Last year’s crop of Gallant stands out as one of the big second wheat success stories – specific weight was 78-80 kg/hl, Hagberg was over 300, protein was over 13% and it yielded an impressive 10t/ha.

“I’d have been happy with 3-3.5t/acre. To get over four, I was over the moon,” he says.

He grows mostly seed for local farmers on 200ha of heavy clay with silt caps near Wisbech. Second and third wheats are his speciality, but he insists there’s no magic secret to making them perform. “We treat them much the same as our first wheats.”

Later drilling after ploughing and pressing, and a weed chit that’s sprayed off is essential for blackgrass and disease control, he says. In spring, nitrogen applications start as soon as he can travel and a fourth one of 40kg/ha is made in late May to boost protein.

But no take-all seed dressing was used. What’s more Gallant is in the ground again as a third wheat this year. “It looks good – I don’t think it’s as affected by take-all as other varieties.”

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