Nitrogen and soil focus helps Norfolk grower win wheat prize

A focus on soil health and a five-way split of nitrogen fertiliser helped Norfolk wheat grower Chris Eglington win a major quality wheat competition with a milling winter wheat sample of well over 14% protein.

Plenty of organic matter together with 307kg/ha of nitrogen saw him harvest a crop of the milling variety Crusoe in 2022, yielding nearly 11t/ha with top milling and breadmaking quality in terms of protein content, hagberg and specific weight.

See also: Lincs grower tightens grip on top-yields record with new win

His high-input high-output system uses hefty levels of nitrogen fertiliser to grow good quality milling wheat, and usually his two mainstay varieties, Crusoe and Skyfall, hit the millers’ minimum standard of 13% protein while yielding more than 10t/ha.

“We are looking for high yields and high protein. If we cut back on nitrogen it is going to hit yield as well as protein and yield is money,” he tells Farmers Weekly.

Farm facts

  • SS Eglington and Son Ltd
  • North Hill, Letton, Thetford
  • Area – 400ha with 300ha of arable and the rest in parkland and woods
  • Four year rotation of winter wheat, winter wheat, winter barley and oilseed rape
  • Awarded Gold for YEN milling wheat protein yield and baking quality award 2022, sponsored by UK Flour Millers
  • Variety Crusoe, yield 10.9t/ha, protein 14.4%, hagberg 355, specific weight 80.7kg/hl

Milling success

His winning wheat sample came in at 14.4% protein, 355 hagberg and specific weight 80.7kg/hl compared with millers’ minimum standards of 13-250-76, and helped him win the wheat quality award at the Yield Enhancement Network (YEN) competition run by crop consultant Adas, announced late last month.

He believes that cutting back on nitrogen fertiliser does not make sense when he is producing high yields, which means his nitrogen is being used efficiently, and he is seeing good milling price premiums over feed wheat.

His award winning crop came from a 2.8ha field of Crusoe, and he argues that with it yielding 10.9t/ha, and meeting full milling specification at a premium of more than £50/t, it will earn an increased revenue of £550/ha – which can buy a lot of nitrogen fertiliser even at current high prices.

This season all his wheat is in milling varieties divided equally between Crusoe and Skyfall and he believes the milling premium will stay relatively strong in the near future.

He sells all his milling wheat through local co-operative Camgrain.

Nitrogen strategy

Mr Eglington’s spring nitrogen strategy is a “little and often” approach to hit high protein levels with four solid ammonium nitrate nitrogen applications followed by a liquid urea spray on the wheat ears for a late protein boost.

His winning crop was a first wheat in his four-year autumn-drilled rotation of wheat-wheat-barley-oilseed rape, with the straw of the previous rapeseed crop chopped and the winter wheat drilled on 6 September in his minimal tillage system.

“We look to drill as early as possible because we can get high yields from early-drilled crops. The early drilling helps start build the biomass we need for big crops,” he adds.

There is blackgrass on the farm, but not at serious enough levels to force him into delaying drilling his winter wheat to give more time to control the grassweed.

The blackgrass is still at low enough levels to be controlled by rogueing in early summer.

Early drilling does mean well-developed crops in the autumn, so he had to spray three times with pyrethroid insecticides in the autumn of 2021 to control the aphids that spread Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus.

He has had to apply at least two sprays since neonicotinoid seed treatments were banned a few seasons ago.

Variable rates

His 400ha North Hill farm, just south of Dereham, stretches across 13 different soil types from sands and gravels to heavier soils such as clay loams, and so variable rate seed drilling is important with an average rate of 157kg/ha used on his winning crop in a range of 151-189kg/ha.

Through into the spring, a higher rate of nitrogen was used than intended for the 2.8ha Crusoe crop.

Firstly, it was the only field of milling wheat grown as a first wheat that season so was treated the same as his bigger block of second wheats when nitrogen needs were calculated using the N-sensor system, which measures crop nitrogen needs as the fertiliser spreader passes across the field.

That season he grew mainly the feed variety Gleam as a first wheat and Skyfall as a second, but for the current season he is focusing purely on milling wheats with first wheats all Crusoe and second wheats all Skyfall.

The second reason was that as the field was just 2.8ha and the headlands accounted for more than 1.4ha, then the headlands generally get more nitrogen.

This season he will trim his nitrogen use with his Crusoe first wheats getting 280kg/ha and Skyfall second wheats staying at the previous level of 294kg/ha.

Five-way split

In his “little and often” approach he applies 30kg/ha of nitrogen in early March, then three largely equal applications at end-March, April and mid-May, followed by a liquid urea application in June of 8kg/ha, making an average of 307kg/ha.

All the solid nitrogen was applied at variable rates.

Of the other crop nutrients, sulphur is applied as early as possible in the spring and also variable rates of potash are applied.

However, no inorganic phosphate is spread as the rotation sees organic matter added twice in the four-year rotation.

Biosolids are applied ahead of oilseed rape and then pig manure is applied ahead of second wheats from a contract pig unit on the farm, and he adds that “the farm has never not had any livestock”.

With such levels of nitrogen, he used three plant growth regulators treatment to make sure the crop stands well, and these are of chlormequat, trinexapac-ethyl (Moddus) and then ethephon+mepiquat chloride (Terpal).

He is also keen to improve soil health, so a controlled traffic system is used to reduce soil compaction, a chaff deck on the combine puts chaff in the wheeling to increase levels of humous where there is likely to be compaction, and drilling is conducted with a tractor using low tyre pressures.

He follow an “economical” four-spray fungicide regime with rust diseases seen as more of a problem than septoria, and takes into account the fact Crusoe is susceptible to brown rust and Skyfall to yellow rust.


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