Arable growers are being urged to choose more disease-resistant varieties, cut costs and look at ways to boost yields to relieve pressure on profit margins.
Falling grain prices, higher input costs and loss of key pesticides are forcing all growers to tighten the purse strings and seek out yield improvement.
The better use of rotations, introducing cover crops and avoiding blanket spraying are all key to cutting costs and boosting output.
The high disease year of 2014, a grain price slump and the lack of new pesticides have forced many growers’ minds to focus on variety disease resistance.
Clare Leaman, cereals variety specialist at crop consultant Niab picked out six newer winter wheat varieties with improved disease resistance for growers this autumn.
These are the breadmaking wheats Skyfall, Trinity and Crusoe, and feed varieties Evolution, Reflection and Costello.
“The risks are less with good disease-resistant varieties and they give growers more flexibility depending on the year,” she told Farmers Weekly.
Six top varieties for disease resistance
Bill Handley, technical manager for the AHDB Recommended Lists, picked the same six varieties in terms of disease resistance, while he and Mrs Leaman also mentioned Lili, which has some milling quality with a feed wheat yield.
With a surplus of feed wheat and rock-bottom prices, Lili can be grown as a feed or milling wheat; Mr Handley refers to it as a “dual purpose” variety.
Lee Bennett, national seeds manager at farming co-operative Openfield, is more prescriptive, narrowing his choice to four – milling wheats Skyfall and Crusoe, and feeders Evolution and Revelation.
“Crusoe was the stand-out variety for us last year, with good yields and good protein content,” he said.
Mr Bennett is more cautious over Trinity due to its slightly low grain protein content and Reflection for its variable results over three years of trials.
Fungicide efficacy on the wane
Kent grower Andy Barr also highlighted the need for better disease resistance and the fear of being locked into a high-input system with fungicide efficacy on the wane.
With strobilurin fungicides of little use against septoria, the efficacy of azoles in decline and SDHIs potentially exposed, he said there is a need for better disease resistance.
He pointed out his winter wheat fungicide costs were £40/ha some 10 years ago, and had now risen sharply to £108/ha.
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“There is no cavalry coming over the hill in terms of new chemicals so we need to produce varieties with better resistance,” he said.
Keith Norman, technical director of farming group Velcourt, advised growers to avoid blanket fungicide spraying and highlighted the need for good rotations.
“Cropping and rotations are essential, and it puts the emphasis on really being in the field to see what is going on and not sitting in the office,” he said.
Velcourt farms 53,000ha stretching from Dorset to Northumberland, and Mr Norman said some its farms missed out on a T0 fungicide this year and used a minimal T1 as they reacted to a low disease year.
He suggested growers spending £120/ha plus on blackgrass control should look at their rotations and use crops like forage maize and ryegrass leys to counter the grassweed, and also move to later drilling and use good varietal selection.
Crop nutrition offers yield breakthroughs
David Ellerton, technical development director at distributor Hutchinsons, added that fungicides protect yield potential, while breakthroughs in yields are likely to come from crop nutrition.
“High-yielding, highly resistant varieties are important, but nutrition is likely to help unlock a crop’s yield potential,” he said.
One method of boosting yields is to use cover crops, which can give a gain of more than £50/ha in increased yields of two following cereal crops, work from Niab showed.
Cover crops sown soon after a winter cereal is harvested in August have given long-term benefits in terms of improved fertility and soil structure.
In more than 12 years of work on cover crops, Ron Stobart, head of farming systems research at Niab has shown consistent yield benefits.
A spring barley crop following a cover crop showed an average 0.33t/ha yield benefit and then a following crop of winter wheat gave a yield boost of 0.25t/ha.
“Yield responses were seen throughout the rotation, although you will need multiple cycles of cover crops to get the full benefits,” said Mr Stobart.
Cost-effective cover cropping
He suggested an economic option could be to use spring oats with a deep rooting brassica such as radish, or spring oats with a nitrogen-fixing legume such as vetch.
Benefits came from higher yields rather than cutting fertiliser usage as his spring barley crops had a standard 160kg/ha of nitrogen applied.
He said the choice of a cover crop should be based on a grower’s objective – whether to improve soil structure or soil fertility – an individual’s budget with cover crop seed costing between £25/ha and £85/ha and where the crop fits in the rotation.
Oilseed rape light leaf spot resistance
Moving to oilseed rape, German plant breeder DSV is testing 3,000 breeding lines in Scotland for better light leaf spot resistance to improve on its current varieties Incentive and Popular.
The breeder has new two varieties – Dariot and Dalton – in trials, with both showing high levels of disease resistance to light leaf spot and also stem canker.
Dariot has a provisional 7.3 score for light leaf spot and 9 for stem canker, while Dalton has a 6 for light leaf spot and 8.1 for stem canker.
“These will be exciting products for the UK,“ said the group’s area manager Heino Schaupp, although the earliest they could make the Recommended List will be September 2017.
Back in the wheat field, the trend towards better resistance is continuing with the pick of candidates for the new Recommended List this December being Illustrious.
This milling wheat from breeder RAGT is described by Mrs Leaman as giving similar yields to Skyfall and Trinity but with better disease resistance.
Provisionally it has been given a rare score of 7 for septoria, a 9 for yellow rust and 8s for mildew and brown rust, where 9 is strong resistance and 1 very susceptible.
For more news, photos, video and information on the Cereals event see our Cereals 2015 page