Accurate, timely applications of nitrogen has allowed a young arable grower to push yields way beyond the expectations of the previous generation in this Oxfordshire arable business.
James Price (pictured), who manages operations at his family’s 650ha business near Woodstock, has thrown himself into producing high-spec milling wheats, with significant tonnages grown on contract to millers like Warburtons.
“We’ve been growing Hereward for about seven years, and now grow 400-500t a year on contract to Warburtons,” says Mr Price, who was chosen as Farmers Weekly’s Young Farmer of the Year in 2009.
“We also grow about 500t of Cordiale each year, without a contract, and we are experimenting with Solstice.”
The four-year average yield across the milling varieties is now 8.5t/ha, something Mr Price is very proud of. “My father always told me if I could get 3t/acre on these Cotswold brash soils I was doing well. Ultimately, if we can get to 10t/ha on one of our fields, that’s where I want them all to be.”
Behind this achievement lies a fundamental shift in the treatment of nitrogen as a key input. “I think fertiliser has to be the most important input to get right – it represents something like 60% of variable costs.”
Mr Price began to change his approach to milling wheat in 2006. “We were blanket-applying nitrogen and I always felt this was the wrong thing to do. Our challenges were clear: Improve yields while attempting to consistently meet milling specifications.”
In addressing those challenges, Mr Price first turned to precision yield mapping in 2003. This moved on to soil sampling for phosphate and potash and he began experimenting with nitrogen management systems in 2006.
The clear winner for Mr Price was Yara‘s N sensor, a precision nitrogen tool he now helps to demonstrate to other farmers and provides operational training on. This maps soils by nitrogen content and varies spreader rates accordingly.
The mapping software also allows Mr Price to review yields and other crop data side-by-side. “Nitrogen application is now split into four applications, using approximately 250kg of N for Hereward.”
Mr Price has also switched from solid to liquid fertiliser, partly to incorporate some sulphur, but also to try to ensure more precise applications. The farm also makes use of significant quantities of organic manures – including 2500t of coffee waste, 1000t of green waste compost and 1500t of sewage sludge.
Hereward: N regime
1: 48kg N, 20kg S
2: 80kg N
3: 80kg N
4: 40kg N
“Overall, this approach has improved yields and quality – proteins are now consistently more than 14% – and given us confidence on meeting our group 1 tonnages.”
However, it’s not all as easy as it sounds. Because his contract with Warburtons prevents Mr Price from using late foliar N product Nufol, he has to attempt to apply a dressing of prilled nitrogen as late as he can possibly go in the season.
But it’s not just nitrogen that rewards a precision approach, Mr Price reckons. “We’ve applied no artificial P or K since 2004 and our soil indices are now 2+ and 3 and up to 4 in some cases.”
Milling wheat is not a crop to be taken lightly. Yields are usually lower than feed wheat, it costs more to grow and premiums can swing sharply from one season to the next.
But, while the stakes can be high, the returns can be too, though it takes a specialist to come up with the goods time and again. Specialists who do their homework, picking the best varieties and honing their systems to suit their farms – and their buyers.
How to enter
If you fit the bill, then take a few minutes to answer the questions. The three finalists will be wined and dined at The Ritz hotel in London, and the winner will receive a trophy and all the kudos that goes with being the UK’s Milling Wheat Challenge champion – the best of the best.