Wheat grower’s 6-point plan to hitting top milling grade

Virtually all of Andrew Robinson’s milling wheat has met breadmaking quality over the past four years, while giving bumper yields of between 11 and 12t/ha.

Managing 1,150ha across two farms, Mr Robinson of Heathcote Farms says the better returns from milling wheats convinced him to commit his entire wheat area to breadmaking varieties a few years ago.

“Our highest gross margin has consistently come from milling wheats, so that’s what we grow,” says the Bedfordshire farm manager.

See also: How to hit the right protein content for your milling wheat

Over the past four years, 96% of his milling wheat crops have made full breadmaking specification – hitting 13% protein, 76kg/hl specific weight and 250 Hagberg quality targets.

He intends to stick with milling wheats providing that there are “sensible” premiums in the future, and by sensible he means a minimum of £15/t as there are greater risks from growing milling wheats so he needs the rewards.

Varieties

On-farm variety trials, hosted on behalf of farming co-operative Openfield but managed independently, have helped to confirm this commitment, as well as allowing him to assess up-and-coming varieties and the use of different agronomic approaches.

As a result, Mr Robinson is convinced that newer varieties are playing a central role in his results.

“There’s no doubt that these quality Group 1 and 2 varieties are giving us something extra. They’ve been a step forwards,” he says.

At his Toddington heavy land site, where Group 1 varieties Crusoe and Zyatt are being grown alongside Group 2 Siskin, there is a five-year average yield of 11.49t/ha, with the 2017 harvest coming in even higher, at 11.79t/ha.

The other farm, on lighter land at Lidlington, has a five-year figure of 11.07t/ha, with the 2017 harvest hitting 11.42t/ha. In the ground this year is Siskin.

Six-point plan

When it comes to the agronomy of his milling wheat, Mr Robinson has identified six key areas that make a difference.

1. Soil management

Drainage is an essential component of soil management, as everything else is compromised without adequate water removal.

“If it’s too wet, weed control is more challenging, nutrient uptake is limited and the crops are under more stress,” he says.

He follows four basic steps to ensure he gets the right results – preventing and/or removing compaction, ensuring good tillage practice, carrying out regular rotational mole ploughing in summer and field drain inspections in winter, and increasing soil organic matter with composts and biosolids.

“Since we started using compost there’s been an increase in the workability of our soils, as well as an improvement in their moisture retention. It has added to our workload, but it’s been worth it,” he says.

“We also use sewage sludge, ahead of winter oilseed rape, to help build soil organic matter,” Mr Robinson adds.

Heathcote Farming: An overview

  • 1,150ha in Bedfordshire
  • Two farms, nine miles apart
  • 930ha Toddington (heavy land)
  • 220ha Lidlington (light land)
  • Other enterprises – composting, residential and commercial properties
  • Two full-time, fully engaged staff
  • Percentage of milling wheat achieving full specification – 2004-2012: 89%, 2013-2017: 96%

2. Seed and seedbed management

Seed crops are grown and treated on the farm, to ensure seed quality and remove the variability that had been creeping in with bought in seed. The aim is to have thousand grain weights in excess of 50g.

Wheat drilling commences in mid-September, so that the whole operation can be completed by the second week of October, with seed rates starting at around 325 seeds/sq m and varied according to soil zones.

“Having a good seedbed is vital. It makes a difference to germination and blackgrass control, as well as giving the crop every chance of fulfilling its potential, right from day one,” says Mr Robinson.

3. Fungicides

The introduction of varieties with better disease resistance has started to change the fungicide programmes on the farm. While good responses are seen from fungicides in most years, there was a marked difference in cost between programmes used last year.

The typical four-spray programme, based on two SDHIs, worked out at £105.95/ha and was applied to Crusoe, Gallant, Siskin and Zyatt. An area of Siskin, however, received a low-input programme, which still contained four sprays but cost just £41.15/ha.

“There was no yield difference between the two, but there was a £64/ha saving. Admittedly, it was a low disease year until late season, but it showed us what is possible,” recalls Mr Robinson.

4. Fertiliser and PGRs

Liquid fertilisers are used on the farms, with sulphur considered vital and added to every nitrogen application.

A total of 250kg/ha of nitrogen is applied to milling wheats, in three splits, with some varieties receiving an extra 40kg at GS71/73.

“That late application is variety specific – we find that Crusoe doesn’t need it,” he says.

The three main applications take place at GS30, GS31/32 and GS37, with 75kg, 100kg and 75kg being applied respectively.

Variable rate nitrogen work has been done, based on boom sensors, but the results have been inconclusive. Last year, Mr Robinson achieved more promising results with a different system, so he will be repeating that work this year.

Otherwise, a comprehensive plant growth regulator programme is also used, based on the three actives chlormequat, trinexapac-ethyl and mepiquat.

5. Micronutrient management

Micronutrients are considered essential by Mr Robinson, who points out that their role in plant health and disease control allows crops to maximise their potential.

Manganese, magnesium, boron, zinc and copper are applied, along with amino acids and growth stimulants.

Each wheat variety is tested four times during the growing season, so that the right trace elements can be applied according to need.

In 2017, he spent twice as much on trace elements, at £32/ha, due to the dry conditions, but in a more normal year, he spends about £16/ha.

6. Pre and post-harvest management

Harvesting wheat

Harvesting wheat © Tim Scrivener

Storing and delivering high-quality grain relies on good grain store management, stresses Mr Robinson.

With such a large area of milling wheat, he aims for an early harvest and has no issues with combining at 24-25% moisture, to avoid putting grain quality at risk.

“That means we have been a big user of pre-harvest glyphosate. We are aware that we may not be able to continue with that approach”, he acknowledges.

Lorries entering the farm’s weighbridge are identified and cross-checked against the loading out sheet.

“It is essential that we are loading the right variety and meeting our customers’ requirements,” he says.

The future

Mr Robinson believes that the future looks very exciting for arable farmers, and with a large number of trials on the farm, he is assessing new fungicides and biostimulants, as well as looking at how varieties germinate at different rates.

He highlights that artificial intelligence also has promise for the business, as does new camera drone technology, which allows more accurate plant counts and the ability to see disease before it becomes visible to the naked eye.

He would also like to see closer liaison with local mills and the development of mutually beneficial relationships, based on a two-way flow of information.

“I’d like to see millers coming onto the farm every 4-5 years and grower groups visiting mills every year. We all need to work together,” he says.