Wheat blends prove simple way to boost average yields

Growing a mix of different wheat varieties, known as a “blend”, rather than planting a single variety has proven to increase average wheat yields by nearly 0.5t/ha, reveals independent farm trial data.

For the past three years, UK farming company Velcourt trialled a four-way wheat blend which yielded on average 0.47t/ha more than the individual cultivars.

The company’s head of crop production technology, Nick Anderson, explains: “At a farm level, this means if you grow a blend of four varieties, you will grow more wheat than if you grew those varieties separately, and this is something farmers can easily do to increase average yields.”

See also: Wildflower seed diversification gives arable tenants security

While some may view the use of blends as part of a strategy to reduce inputs, our work suggests that using blends simply allows you to increase yields with the same level of crop protection inputs.” 

After promising results carried out as part of the company’s independent crop research programme across various UK sites, Velcourt rolled out its findings across 40 of its arable farms last season.

We catch up with one of its farm managers to find out how he got on.

Green Drove Farm, Wiltshire

Green Drove Farm manager Jonny Kerr was one of the farmers who put a 20ha blend of Gleam, Graham, Extase and Siskin to the test last autumn.

Despite a record-breaking wet spring and high disease pressure, the wheat blend produced some of the farm’s highest-performing wheat yields at JM Strong & Partners.

With an average harvest of about 9.8t/ha for conventionally grown wheat, Jonny was particularly impressed that the blend averaged 10.4t/ha – an impressive 0.6t/ha yield boost.

“Crops were hit by high levels of septoria in what was the wettest March in 40 years, with 129mm of rainfall recorded at the farm, but the wheat blend still achieved more than 10t/ha,” says Jonny.

The blend was treated exactly the same as the conventional wheat, with a three-spray fungicide programme of T1, T2 and T3 deployed.

“Crops looked clean at the T0 timing, so I didn’t think we needed to spray, but three weeks and a lot of rain later, we were hit with high disease pressure at T1 – hindsight is a wonderful thing,” he says. 

“Without a doubt, the blended wheat had less septoria than some of the other crops, emphasising the value of an integrated approach to disease management,” says Jonny.


Integrated disease management

For Jonny, blending varieties is now an important part of his disease-management strategy, which is why he is increasing the area of the blend to 50ha this autumn.

The precise mechanism by which blends deliver higher yields in unclear, but he believes a wider genetic package from different cultivars acts in a similar way to herd immunity.

“If one variety has particularly good resistance against yellow rust, fewer plants are available for the disease to take hold. This prevents the disease from spreading, which maintains green leaf area and results in higher yields.”

He also believes blends can help increase the longevity of genetic resistance. This means growers can hold on to varieties for longer as there is less chance of disease breakdown.

Jonny manages 1,100ha of cropping for JM Strong & Partners near the village of Pewsey.

Cropping consists of winter wheat, spring and winter barley, maize and pulses. 

Recently, he has grown the winter wheat varieties Graham and Extase, alongside one or two relative newcomers on the AHDB Recommended List.

In autumn 2022, the new additions were Dawsum and Cranium, although for 2023 the Cranium has been dropped in favour of a larger area of blended wheat. 

Next steps

Wheat bends were supplied to Velcourt by Walnes Seeds from Suffolk.

This autumn Jonny will be sowing a pre-mixed blend of Champion, Extase, Siskin and Redwald, which will also be rolled out across Velcourt’s farm base.

This blend was chosen on the basis of maximum genetic diversity and the highest untreated yield of the varieties available from the merchant. 

Nick adds: “The AHDB blending tool is a useful resource when looking at selecting a blend of varieties.” 

Army career proves its worth within agriculture

Before his farming career, Velcourt farm manager Jonny Kerr spent nine years in the British Army, serving in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan.

During his time in the military serving in the Black Watch, Jonny built up a wealth of unique leadership and management skills, which he is now applying to the agricultural world.

A military career taught Jonny the value of planning, logistics, skillful communication and people management.

It enabled him to deal with unprecedented scenarios and to successfully complete tasks with the provisions at hand.

Jonny Kerr

Jonny Kerr © Alex Bramall

Transferable skills

“The skills I learned in the army are entirely transferable to agriculture. Both involve co-ordinating people and resources for specific outcomes, which require having everything in the right place at the right time.

“As a farmer, you are constantly assessing, deciding and acting on what to do. In the army, we followed the phrase: observe, orientate, decide and act, and that’s relatable to agriculture as you’re faced with constant changes that keep evolving.”

After leaving the army as a senior captain back in 2013, Jonny completed a graduate diploma in agriculture at the Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester.

“I had just left the army and decided to complete a graduate diploma in agriculture. I was out of uniform and back in jeans and a T-shirt as a mature student,” he says.

Growing up in the countryside, a career in agriculture had always interested Jonny, but he thought farming was a “born and bred” industry – unless he won the lottery to buy his own farm, it wasn’t a career for him.

However, he was pointed in the direction of Velcourt by a friend and the more he looked into it, the more it became aviable option.

“I went on to complete the Velcourt management training scheme, which included Facts and Basis qualifications, and I haven’t looked back since.”

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