Timing separates best growers from the rest
By Andrew Blake
BETTER timing is largely what separates the best arable farmers from the rest.
That was a strong message from a DEFRA Agriknowledge roadshow at Newmarket last week – one of 10 planned for around the country, all of which are intended to help boost growers profitability (Arable Nov 9).
"If all wheat growers got their flag leaf sprays on at the right time the average UK yield would rise 4-5%," claimed project co-ordinator Bill Clark of ADAS.
When it comes to controlling cereal diseases, growers must understand that correct spray timing is far more important than choice of product or dose, he said. That is especially true when using older fungicides because newer ones tend to offer more flexibility.
The £280,000 Agriknowledge project is based on research-based benchmarks for growers to assess where they stand and adjust their businesses if required.
Modifications may be necessary, but not always, said Mr Clark. "One the hardest decisions to make is to do nothing."
As a rule of thumb, farms should be able to spray all their wheat in three days, especially if they grow disease susceptible varieties, he said. "If you cant get round, drop the water volume."
Too many growers are still confused over crop growth stages and what is meant by T1, T2 and T3 timings, he added. "You cant afford to get the T2 wrong – its when all the flag leaves on the main tillers are fully emerged."
Do not blindly repeat a strategy which proved successful one year in the next, he advised. Spraying early against phoma in winter oilseed rape was vital to avoid stem canker eating into harvest 2000 output. But in the previous season early autumn treatment was a waste of money because the disease developed too late to cause much canker.
COST-EFFECTIVE weed control is all about timing, according to Jim Orson, director of Morley Research Centre. But correct timing applies just as much to cultivations as to spray applications.
Autumn cultivation timing to maximise the benefits from stale seed-beds is particularly important. To avoid long-term problems from oilseed rape, any field work, including ploughing, should be delayed for at least two weeks after combining and preferably four. "It has a tremendous impact on the level of future volunteers," said Mr Orson.
Freshly shed wild oats should be left on the surface as long as possible to allow birds and mice to wind down populations. "Cash in on the help you can get from the environment."
When it comes to herbicide timings, blackgrass and ryegrass must be tackled before they reach the three-leaf stage, he advised. So, too, must resistant wild oats.
Meadow grasses need spraying before they tiller. "Remember they can tiller very early."
With the exception of chickweed, especially in the north, broadleaved weed control in wheat – particularly in crops sown after mid-October – can safely be left until the spring, he added.
Cleavers must be controlled, but all independent research suggests there is no point in treating them before the crop reaches second node (GS32). "You still recover all the yield by spraying then."
Weed control not just about sprays
Only fine-tune if basics are right
BEWARE of trying to fine-tune your business before you have basics right – and that includes record keeping, advised ADASs James Clarke.
"Good records are absolutely key." Without them it is impossible to see where a farms money is being spent and how its outlays on inputs, labour and machinery compare with others.
Do not assume that the bigger the farm the more profitable it is likely to be, he added. "There are opportunities to spread the costs of labour and machinery and so become more efficient. But small farms can be very profitable and large farms can lose a lot of money."
Much depends on matching lab-our and machinery needs to individual farms, an area where the Agri-knowledge benchmarks can help.
"Make sure you spend money wisely and that you do things at the right time. Timing is much more important than whether you choose brand X or Y or three or 0.3 litres/ha.
"Fine-tuning is only useful once the major decisions are correct."
Autumn windows critical
WINDOWS for getting autumn fieldwork completed are critical and shrink fast on heavy soils in wet years.
However, gearing up for the worst possible conditions so you never get caught out is uneconomic, according to Paul Miller of Silsoe Research Institute.
Experience over 30 years in the midlands highlights how the days available for cultivation varies hugely, depending on soil type and season.
Whereas growers on light land in a dry year can bank on having 25 days available in October, those on heavy land in a wet season are likely to have only a week.
"The rule of thumb is to plan for eight years out of 10, and then have a fall-back plan for the really bad years." *
• More Arable on page 67.
• Use Agriknowledge benchmarks.
• Timeliness fundamental to success.
• Record keeping essential.
• See www.agriknowledge.co.uk
• Computers help analyse farms in more detail, but only if a basic record-keeping structure is already in place.
• Yield, the key to profitability, is clearly affected by soil type. Targets for wheat on light, medium and heavy land should be 8, 9 and 10t/ha respectively.
• Average expense of running a 160hp tractor, including fuel but excluding operator cost, is £19/hour.
• Knock-on effects of striving for minimum combining losses can easily outweigh gains.
• Talk to neighbours about co-operating. Recent revamp at three ADAS research centres eliminated 15 tractors!
• Adopt a strategy for dealing with herbicide resistance.