How to choose your spring break crop and get the best returns

Finding a recipe for consistent spring break crop success can be a challenge on some farms. So what are the options and how should growers approach selection for the best returns?

Growers looking at spring break crop options should start by deciding whether they are going for a mainstream or a niche market.

With an expanding range of speciality crops joining the list of traditional choices, there is a place for all of them and no right or wrong selection, only the most appropriate for the individual farm situation, says Andrew Fairs of Essex-based niche crop specialist Fairking.

“The usual spring-sown suspects, such as oilseed rape, linseed and pulses have a major advantage in that they can be grown with your existing machinery, using your previous knowledge and expertise,” he says.

See also: Niche crop breeder shows health benefits of ‘naked’ barley

In addition, they have several marketing outlets and come with an established agronomy package, which includes existing agrochemicals that can be used safely on them.

“With these crops, there’s no limit on yield, as they go into established markets. So, they’re a safe choice, but not always the most profitable. Price volatility can be an issue.”

Niche crops, such as borage and echium, only have a limited market so must be grown on contract, with the price fixed before you drill.

“If these small markets are oversupplied, the price crashes,” he explains. “That’s not in anyone’s interest and in the worst-case scenario, it leaves you with a barn full of seed that no-one wants.”

Specialist equipment is often required for niche crops, much of which is expensive, says Mr Fairs.

Soya © Tim Scrivener

Soya © Tim Scrivener

“There’s a sense of going it on your own with some of these speciality crops, from the lack of agrochemicals which can be used safely to meeting particular storage and drying requirements.”

In addition, producing for a small market, especially where there’s consumer demand, means the crop must meet high standards.

“Ultimately, it’s the grower that makes it work. They’re not an easy option or a quick fix, but the price you get reflects that.”

Whatever the choice, break crops shouldn’t be looked at individually or in one year, believes Mr Fairs.

“The farm needs to be profitable, not just the crop. It may work to grow things in sequence, or have a double break, depending on the weed burden.”

Considerations when choosing a spring break crop

  1. Mainstream versus niche
  • Market
  1. Rotation or sequence
  • Supply and demand
  • Price and area volatility
  • Weed burden
  1. Hidden Costs
  • Processing of small quantities
  • Purchase of specialist equipment
  • Use of contractors
  • Impact on following crops
  1. Customer
  • Closeness to consumer
  • Practical knowledge
  • Agronomic advice
  • Credit rating

Niche crops – current and future options

  • Borage – drilled late April, harvested mid-September after swathing, seed drop issue as matures indeterminately, market satisfied by 45 growers
  • Echium – like borage but without seed drop, must be swathed, beware sclerotinia
  • Quinoa – drilled in March, harvested late September, grown on wide rows, not processed before sale
  • Camelina – spring sown, very small seeds, no specialist harvest equipment required
  • Chia – early stages for crop, harvested late September, no agrochemicals available
  • Naked barley – easy to grow, good against black-grass, potential market in bakery
  • Naked spelt – early days, interest from millers for use in artisan loaves
  • Evening primrose – takes two years to mature (or drill in autumn)

Case Study – Millet at Chelmsford AHDB Monitor Farm

Millet was grown for the first time in 2017 at the Chelmsford AHDB Monitor Farm by mother and son team Christy and Hew Willett, in an effort to find a break crop that could contribute to ryegrass control.

With a mid-May drilling date and very rapid growth, the crop’s potential suitability for sites where grass weeds are winning, together with its low growing costs, made it an obvious contender for the rotation at Parklands Farm.

Christy and Hew Willett

Christy and Hew Willett

As a result, they grew the variety Mammoth on a bird seed contract, achieving a yield of 3.4t/ha and a price of £220/t, ending up with a gross margin of £666/ha.

“That compares very favourably with our other break crops,” Christy says. “There was some slug damage and the crop looked appalling as we approached harvest, as it seemed to collapse in on itself, but it proved easy to combine.”

Some of the seed does shed out, so the field was inundated with pigeons after harvest, she recalls.

“We didn’t have any issues with bird damage while it was growing. It was desiccated with glyphosate before harvest and then dried down to 14% moisture, which added £4/t to the costs.”

Some 40kg/ha of nitrogen went on in the seed-bed, with a further 80kg/ha being applied to the growing crop.

“Otherwise, we used one of the old hormone-based herbicides for weed control, which was a very cost-effective treatment.”

The millet did help to reduce ryegrass numbers and concerted efforts will continue to bring numbers down, she adds.

As a result, the Willetts intend to grow millet again in 2018 and are doubling the area planned. “Again, it will go on ryegrass land which is coming out of fallow.”

Their other spring break crop options – beans, oats and barley – all have a place, but don’t always perform as expected.

“We have grown naked oats, which are lower yielding, but we need to get better at producing them,” Christy adds. “Spring barley is very competitive against blackgrass, so does give us a good opportunity, while spring beans did very well in 2017, but can be disappointing.”

Harvesting millet © Tim Scrivener

Harvesting millet © Tim Scrivener

Spring break crop gross margins at Parklands Farm



Millet 666
Spring barley 633
Spring beans  604
Spring oats 519

Case Study – Soya at Sittingbourne Monitor Farm, Kent

Disappointing performance and harvesting difficulties with pulse crops prompted Kent farm manager Mark Bowsher-Gibbs of the Sittingbourne Monitor Farm to try 18ha of soya in 2017, as a possible replacement for peas.

Following a cover crop of feed oats, which had been grazed off over the winter and then sprayed with glyphosate, the soya was drilled in early May at a seed rate of 140kg/ha, using inoculated seed at a cost of around £140/ha.

“The aim is to get 50-65 plants/sq m,” he says. “The plant has a fixed hypercotyl length, so it mustn’t be drilled deeper than 1-1.5inches. As a result, it is important to conserve moisture at drilling.”

Seed-bed fertiliser included 30kg/ha of nitrogen, as well as maintenance dressings of P and K, plus some sulphur – something which wouldn’t have to be done every year. 

A pre-emergence herbicide mix of Nirvana (imazamox + pendimethalin) and Gamit (clomazone) was applied, followed by a split application of post-emergence herbicide Pinnacle (thifensulfuron-methyl) – allowing magnesium and manganese to be applied at the same time.

Mark Bowsher Gibbs in soya © BillyPix

Mark Bowsher Gibbs in soya © BillyPix

Delia fly and sclerotinia are both potential problems that await appropriate pesticide approvals, while slugs were an unexpected problem in May.

“By July, both flowers and root nodules were forming and quite a biomass had developed. The crop has the ability to fix 200kg/ha of nitrogen,” says Mr Bowsher-Gibbs.

The soya started to senesce at the beginning of September and dropped its leaves, with harvest starting in early October.

“We had to wait a bit before combining them, as the stems can turn to a wet pulp if you try too soon. The beans are all a similar size when they’re ready, so shell out easily.”

He achieved a yield of 2.4t/ha and a price of £375/t, giving a gross margin of £545/ha.

“Soya compared favourably to a 4t/ha pea crop and was no less risky but had the advantage of a later harvesting date. Of course, the weather meant that the crop had every opportunity to perform last year.”

Mr Bowsher-Gibbs will be growing it again in 2018 and plans to follow soya with a first wheat, to make the most of the nitrogen fixed by the crop.

Soya gross margin at Blackbird Farming

Output 2.4t @ £375/t
Seed 139
Herbicides 86
Slug pellets 7
Trace elements 5
Fertiliser 118
Total inputs 355
Gross margin 545
All the participants were speaking to Farmers Weekly at the Chelmsford Monitor Farm meeting in February. The summer open day at Parklands Farm, Galleywood will be held on Friday June 21.