Spring wheat turns out to be a breadwinner

As grain prices plummet and high-input winter crops come under pressure, Luke Casswell visits one grower in the arable heartland of East Anglia to see how spring wheat is proving a very profitable crop.

A winning formula of lower inputs and milling premiums has driven spring wheat’s success for estate manager Ron Gabain.

He looks to ensure a valuable milling bonus is achieved on his spring wheat, pinpointing early establishment and keeping a disease free crop as key.

Exactly 50% of the wheat area on Stetchworth Estate is taken up by spring wheat,  such is the crop’s importance in the rotation.

An exceptional 2014 harvest saw spring wheat overtake gross margins for winter wheat with yields touching 11t/ha and premiums reaching up to £40/t over feed wheat.

See also: Spring barley profits beat second wheats on the Cotswolds

“It is a crucial part to our rotation offering a range of benefits and has performed particularly well this year with the premium a key factor,” he says.

Stetchworth Estate Farms, Newmarket, Suffolk

  • Soil types: Newmarket and Hanslope series
  • Cropping: Winter wheat, winter barley, sugar beet, spring barley, spring wheat, linseed, and spring peas
  • Acreage: 1,325ha
  • Spring wheat area: 200ha
  • Winter wheat area: 200ha

Typically spring crops yield 1-2 tonnes lower than winter wheat, at about 8t/ha, as they are grown on lower yielding lighter land, but he points out that with fewer inputs it can  provide healthy margins.

Located near the “Home of Racing” in Newmarket, the farm spans across heavy Hanslope clays through to medium light loam over chalk, on which a large percentage of the spring wheat crop is grown after sugar beet.

Growing the breadmaking spring wheat variety Mulika gives the option of drilling from October all the way through until April, with nearly 30% being sown in late autumn.

This autumn slot straight after sugar beet can increase pesticide costs slightly, but it does present the opportunity for slightly higher yields.

 “Spring wheat originally arrived in the rotation due to it offering the perfect solution to allow a wheat crop to be sown after sugar beet,” he explains.

It has now become one of the most profitable crops on the farm during a time when costs have tightened for all arable growers.

He is keen to prime his soils for the crop when aimed at spring drilling, creating a weather-proof surface through the winter. This will allow easy working at drilling and help achieve good early establishment, which is critical to spring crops.

“Autumn cultivations are vital – you have to get them right and ensure you are on top of your weed control or you will lose the advantage of a spring crop,” he explains.

This involves ploughing in the autumn followed by a Cultipress where needed. This will promote flushes of blackgrass and broad-leaved weeds, which can be sprayed off with glyphosate.

He also has the option of a minimum tillage Gregoire Besson Discordon, which he explains, will go as deep as the plough without turning over the soil.

Ron Gabain

Ron Gabain

“The key is a bit of flexibility and using the right equipment in the right conditions. You don’t want to be ploughing your land in January and making a mess,” he says.

 Mr Gabain points out that spring crops can quickly pick up a bad reputation if chosen as a last resort and are muddled into a poor seed-bed.

“Dry seasons can be one of the main downfalls in spring wheat but if you allow it to establish well – you give the crop every chance to reach moisture, survive, and remain profitable,” he says.

The aim is to establish 300 plants/sq m with the majority of spring drilling taking place in February. However, he points out soil conditions help dictate the drilling date, and he is prepared to drill in January or March if necessary.

The lower input crop offers an attractive option but it is vital not to take any shortcuts with spring wheat, according to Mr Gabain.

The fungicide programme is a case in point. He explains to ensure the crop makes a premium it needs to be kept as clean as possible.

This typically involves a three-spray programme, targeting rust and mildew early on and following up with a flag leaf spray and ear spray, with fusarium one of the main late disease threats.

He points out that maintaining a clean flag leaf is valuable to help pump as much protein into the crop as possible.

“We know that green leaf is the power house for the energy and protein so there are no short cuts taken,” Mr Gabain says.

He also aims to stay on top of the grassweed pressure and use the opportunity to tackle the UK’s number one grassweed – blackgrass.

Following a glyphosate spray prior to drilling, he will follow up with a pendimethalin or diflufenican based peri-emergence herbicide.

He then opts to use Ally Max to take out a broader range of weeds such as thistles and finally Topik is applied in certain seasons to manage wild oats.

Nitrogen applications mirror milling winter wheat applications, with a 200-220kg/N split three ways in March, April and June.

He looks to get the crop away quickly with a good leaf coverage and then manage the canopy, but is cautious of the risk of lodging by putting too much nitrogen on too early.

Active ingredients

  • Ally Max – metsulfuron-methyl + tribenuron-methyl
  • Topik – clodinafop-propargyl

“You do need very careful nitrogen management and to use a PGR. I tend to keep a bit of nitrogen back for a later application to help boost yields and proteins,” he adds.

Mr Gabain keeps a close eye on costs, and utilises a small but efficient workforce, with two main tractor drivers covering the arable land at Stetchworth.

The spring option helps spread this workload across the season allowing the workforce to stay on top of drilling, spraying and harvesting.

He does, however, point out that while harvesting is slightly later, spring crops will be prioritised ahead of winter wheat to ensure the quality is met.

The marketing strategy is an important element to spring wheat success. Mr Gabain aims to achieve a good overall average price by being flexible and using different avenues to sell his crop.

“The key is getting a good base price and milling price but they don’t always occur at the same time so it may pay to have a bit of patience,” he says.

Mr Gabain explains that from his experience there is a good milling market for spring wheat and hopes new varieties in the future will continue to make spring wheat such a success.

Spring milling wheat v feed winter wheat
 

Spring milling wheat £/ha

Winter wheat £/ha

Fungicide

80

140

Herbicide

32

96

Fertiliser

204

197

Seed

65

75

Pesticides

5

5

PGR/Trace elements/Other

24

17

   

Total inputs £

410

530

   

Yield (t/ha)

8

10

Grain price (£/t)

115

115

Premium  (£/t)

40

 

Gross Margin

830

620

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