Soil care reaps yield gold for wheat crop

Two record-yielding wheat years in the past three show that farm manager James Faulds is getting more than a few things right – and looking after his soils is one of them.

He has invested heavily in repairing an old drainage system and added a network of mole drains to improve his soils workability and reduce standing water in his crops.

This has been the basis of his careful soil management, which extends to adding organic matter, isolating field traffic to the tramlines and cleaning out ditches.

“You have to start from the beginning, making sure your soils are in the right state. Get this right and the rest will follow,” he says.

Farm facts

Hill House Farm, Aspall, Suffolk

  • Area – 320ha
  • Crops – Wheat, oilseed rape, sugar beet
  • Soil – Beccles series clay

Located on one of the highest points in Suffolk, just north of Ipswich, his clay loam soils can be prone to capping, so the benefits of an improved soil system is paying dividends, particularly in his winter wheat crops, which averaged 11.8t/ha this year.

It has also played a part in achieving a high yield for the Adas Yield Enhancement Network (YEN) competition. After running a field trial last year, Mr Faulds decided to join the project to see if he could boost his yields.

Growing a crop of Santiago with a potential yield estimated at 21.1t/ha, he achieved 13.8t/ha and now hopes to be able to bridge the gap and maintain his profitability.

Using RTK satellite guidance, he has mole drained every 8ft across his fields. Due to a high sand content, the moles lack longevity so every six years he will mole between the 2.5m drains and then subsoil 0.5m down in the following crop at a 90deg angle to the mole.

“This has already made a huge difference. We are seeing much less blackgrass in these areas and a reduction of standing water in the crops,” he says.

“It is also helping improve the workability of our soils and the timeliness of our operations, which can be so crucial throughout the season,” Mr Faulds adds.

He points out helping the soil breathe and boosting the soil microbiology as well as reducing the risk of roots sitting in water over the winter, gives the crop the best start and allows it to thrive.

If the crop is allowed to generate an effective root system it can then use the nutrients and moisture in the soil, he explains.

He has invested significant money in clearing every ditch that has a land drain running in to it, to allow excess water to leave the field quickly.

He then supplements his soils with a range of organic materials, including poultry manure, pig manure and sewage sludge.

This has given a nitrogen response and helped restore organic matter back into the soil, which can be quickly lost in this drier eastern region of the country, particularly if they are heavily cultivated.

Depending on the season, a large part of the cultivations revolve around Mr Faulds’ Vaderstad Rexius twin press, Dalbo Cultimax 8m and plough. He explains that, if needed, he will do a number of passes before drilling with his Sumo and then rolling.

By increasing the seed rate and moving to liquid nitrogen, he has managed to boost his yield from headlands and so increase the overall wheat yields on his farm.

Fungicide use

  • T-1 – Ceando (epoxiconazole + metrafenone)
  • T0 – Comet (pyraclostrobin) + chlorothalonil
  • T1 – Vertisan (penthiopyrad), Proline (prothioconazole) + chlorothalonil
  • T2 – Librax (fluxapyroxad + metconazole )+ chlorothalonil
  • T3 – Proline (prothioconazole), Corbel (fenpropimorph) + chlorothalonil
  • T4 – Comet (pyraclostrobin) + Folicur (tebuconazole)

“We were seeing yield penalties through poor granular application but found liquid fertiliser offered much more accuracy and is particularly beneficial on the headlands,” he says.

Focusing on feeding the plant also relies heavily on applying the correct nutrients. Calcium and lime are important elements to help structure his clay soils with a binding effect.

Meanwhile, he applies potash before stem extension to ensure the plant can take up and hold on to water and other nutrients.

“We also do two hits of manganese in a season, which is aimed at strengthening the crop through the winter to prevent frost damage and reduce the risk of mildew,” he says.

Splitting his nitrogen four ways, he goes little and often, feeding the crop throughout the year to keep it growing for as long as possible to boost yield.

“Pre-stem extension we are trying to manage the canopy to gain maximum light interception then, after GS32 when the lodging risk is reduced, we can pile nitrogen on quite heavily and get it into the yield,” he says.

Bob Bulmer, Hutchinsons’ YEN project trials and research manager, says to boost yields it is important to keep crops green for as long as possible.

“With the national average yield of about 8t/ha there is a lot of scope for improvement and maximising sunlight interception could play a big part in this,” he says.

On the 320ha farm he manages in Aspall, home of the famous Suffolk cider, Mr Faulds is aiming for a top yield but stresses ensuring a farm profit is also key.

His total pesticide spend came to £275/ha last season, including £80/ha on herbicides and £174/ha on a comprehensive fungicide programme. This also includes slug pellet, manganese applications and plant growth regulators.

He points out that while spend was higher than normal, he tailored it to meet the demands of the season, with disease pressure high in last year’s crop.

“The nitrogen is tailored to meet the crops’ needs and herbicides have to be invested in to control blackgrass.”

Meanwhile, he explains the investment in fungicides will largely be dictated by the crop potential and forward grain prices, to ensure it remains profitable.

Winter wheat area entered for the YEN competition

  • Yield – 13.8t/ha
  • Drilling date – 24 September
  • Previous crop – oilseed rape
  • Seed rate – 160kg/ha (home-saved seed, Redigo Deter dressed)

Nitrogen fertiliser – 235kg/ha – split four ways

  • 13 March – 26kg
  • 25 March – 34kg
  • 22 April – 120kg
  • 17 May – 55kg

Autumn herbicide

  • Crystal (flufenacet and pendimethalin) + diflufenican

Spring herbicide

  • Atlantis (iodosulfuron-methyl-sodium + mesosulfuron)
  • Starane (fluroxypyr)

Harvest date – 18 August

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