Is it possible to cut growing costs and maintain yields, or are rising input costs an inevitable consequence of growing winter wheat?
The answer depends on your situation, says national agronomy company ProCam, having analysed its 4cast data from the past 10 years.
The aim was to look at the changing patterns of input use and investigate how growers are responding to the latest set of agronomic and economic challenges.
Cost of resistance
“From our record of inputs use, it’s very plain to see that some costs have been increasing,” says ProCam technical director Tudor Dawkins. “And where that has occurred there has been a clear reason for it – resistance.”
Whether it is herbicide resistance in weeds or reduced sensitivity to fungicides in diseases, its presence and spread is requiring a more robust approach, he explains.
“These serious problems require a bigger sledgehammer. There has been a need to use all the available options and robust doses, which has driven up costs.”
In very challenging conditions, blackgrass control costs have reached as much as £150/ha, he reveals. “Interestingly, there’s been an increased spend on adjuvants, as growers have used every tool in the box to maximise herbicide activity.
“Some growers are really up against it with very high weed burdens, so all control measures need to be considered.”
It is a similar picture with fungicides. Changes in the sensitivity of septoria populations to fungicides have resulted in the need for a higher spend on disease control, with the 2014 season also showing the effects of the added pressure of yellow rust.
“The return on investment is always worthwhile, as was seen last harvest,” notes Dr Dawkins. “For every £1 invested, £3 were returned.”
Addressing any resistance problems at an early stage is important, he stresses. “There’s a downward-spiral scenario if resistance is ignored. So for certain situations, you have to be prepared to spend, regardless of the wheat price.”
But not all input use has increased or become more costly, he points out. “Spend on growth regulators hasn’t increased over the 10-year period, although there has been a seasonal effect on their use.
“For example, they were used extensively in the very wet year of 2012, to help promote tillering among low plant populations.”
Likewise, the amount spent on insecticides has declined. This may reflect the changing patterns of seed treatment use, as there has been a move towards the use of insecticidal seed treatments, reducing the need for autumn sprays, he suggests.
“We’ve seen a rise in seed costs, which includes seed treatment in the figure, but that total is now coming down,” says Dr Dawkins. “The falling price of wheat has had an effect, while growers are looking much more closely at how much they spend at this stage.”
By far the biggest input in terms of cost is fertiliser. Again, expenditure is dropping – not because less nitrogen is being applied, he believes, but because the price of nitrogen has fallen.
“Modern varieties have a greater requirement for nitrogen and they do respond accordingly. Precision application techniques are helping to target fertiliser better and prevent any under- or overdosing.”
Understanding where costs are being incurred and being able to benchmark them is an important part of crop production, says Dr Dawkins.
“Costs on a per-hectare basis are important, but cost per tonne produced is a better metric.
“What we’ve seen with our 4cast system is that ProCam growers are producing around 0.8t/ha more than the average, with the top 25% getting an additional 2t/ha.”
Establishment costs visualised
What about costs in 2015-16?
A radical change in approach will allow growers to lower costs this year, advises ProCam’s head of crop production, Nick Myers.
“There has to be a different mindset,” he stresses. “There’s always scope to reduce costs, but it requires a greater management input and a move away from the ‘spray and pray’ mentality that has dominated until recently.”
The top-performing growers in 4cast are showing the way, he notes. “A good example is the use of delayed drilling. Despite its higher risk, it can be done successfully, providing the crops are going into good quality seed-beds and in the right order of field choice.”
Interestingly, the highest performers in ProCam’s recording system achieved better yields from later drilling than those who stuck rigidly to their original plans, he reveals.
“But they had done the planning and forethought to make it work. Seed-beds had been prepared in advance and they had kept an element of flexibility in their plans.”
In these situations, grassweed control was both better and cheaper, he comments. “Soils are cooler and moister in October and November, so the residual herbicides that are applied tend to work better. This is a really important consideration, as we are reliant on them and need them to do a good job.”
The ultimate delayed drilling is waiting until the spring, which has the greatest effect on blackgrass, notes Mr Myers. “Again, there have been some great successes with this. Lower yields aren’t a problem where there are lower growing costs.”
Analysis from 4cast shows that winter and spring wheat gross margins were very similar last year, so there was no financial penalty from adopting spring crops, he continues. “The only difference is that there were more quality wheats being grown in the spring slot, which earned a premium.”
Spring cropping usually has very little blackgrass in it, points out Mr Myers. “Spring barley is more competitive against any grassweeds that do germinate, but either wheat or barley is effective.”
Winter barley has also given some good results and has come into rotations as the third crop. “The hybrids have a competitive ability, which contributes to a suppression of blackgrass, and there’s an earliness advantage with barley, which helps with preparations for the following crop.”
Other gains against blackgrass include using higher seed rates and growing a competitive variety. “These will give small improvements without putting costs up.”
While herbicide expenditure can be reduced, fungicides will be more difficult, although fewer applications are needed on spring crops, he adds.
“The analysis shows that frontloading fungicide programmes is the best way to proceed. Even in a low disease year, there will be benefits from using fungicides. So be wary about omitting a T0 spray or reducing rates – any adjustments will come later in the season.”
Seed, fertiliser and fuel costs are all lower than they were this time last year, he points out. “Those are definite highlights for the coming season.”
Other areas for consideration include more collaboration and co-operation with neighbours, especially where machinery is concerned, and a closer look at grain marketing strategies, suggests Mr Myers.
“It is going to be a challenge,” he acknowledges. “But with the right knowledge and good attention to detail, there are opportunities for growers to drive costs down.”