HGCAS PIPELINE TO SUCCESS
The heat is on – cereal yields and quality must rise while production costs fall. Can research help meet that goal? The HGCA reckons grower-funded studies certainly will, as Charles Abel reports
FIVE years from now UK arable farmers will be competing in a significantly freer world market. Lower grain prices and less state aid will mean considerable pressure on profits.
So how will UK cereal farmers respond? Exploiting the findings of new research will be a key element of their armoury, says the HGCA, which administers the 23p/t levy collected from growers to finance near-market studies.
Five years from now farmers will be far better able to forecast and combat crop problems, deploying new techniques to cut unit costs and match quality to market demands, it says.
"By removing some of the uncertainties from crop production, research will ensure farmers are far better able to cope with the pressures of the coming years," says Paul Meakin, research manager at the HGCA.
The current research pipeline is full of work which will give UK growers a real competitive advantage, he argues. Diagnostic disease testing, lower rates of fungicides, modified seed rates and fewer passes through the crop are just some of the ways research will come to the aid of producers.
"When the HGCAs R&D strategy was written in 1995 we could see falling grain prices and reducing support on the horizon. We recognised the need to reduce the cost of production way back then – now its a real headline issue."
Indeed, the currency bonanza of the past three years has benefited research as well as farmers. In the same way that growers have been able to restructure their businesses, so researchers have been able to initiate projects which will help in the tough years ahead, says Dr Meakin.
He identifies two main planks to the HGCAs strategy. First is a general attack on unit costs, based on three main elements:
• Targeting inputs more precisely.
• Making best use of inputs.
• Exploiting environmental factors.
Second is the achievement of more appropriate crop quality, based on:
• Matching production to end use.
• Predicting quality and adjusting management accordingly.
• Protecting quality, mainly in storage.
A prime example of research which will help growers cut production costs by optimising the use of inputs is the current £236,000 seed rate project, based at ADAS Rosemaund and Nottingham University (see page S8).
"Seed rate may seem like old hat, but were bringing very new thinking to bear on the issue. The work only started last autumn, and was met by a lot of groans in the industry. But were already quite bullish about whats coming out. Even 80 seeds/sq m can give yields equivalent to a more conventional 250-300 seeds/sq m crop, provided the variety, region and timing are right," says Dr Meakin.
"Pretty awful crops with fewer than 20 plants/sq m will give reasonable yields if the variety is high tillering."
The project has another two years to run, but the early release of information shows how interim results from HGCA-funded work will be made increasingly available to the industry, Dr Meakin stresses. "I believe we are adult enough and so are farmers to realise that one years results carry a health warning and should be treated as such."
He adds that farmers should not anticipate blueprint guidance from such work. "There may be scope to include indications of seed rate flexibility in the Recommended Lists, but the main release of this information will be to advisers who can interpret the results and give a grower advice relevant to his farm. Technology is becoming increasingly complex, as I think farmers realise, and it makes far better sense for the adviser to do the interpretation."
It is important to examine the reasons behind research findings, he adds. "If we can understand both how and why different varieties react to vernalisation and day length we can hopefully become more predictive, so we dont have to test every new variety. Instead we will be able to look at the characteristics of the variety and make a valid prediction far more rapidly."
In the case of seed rates, work to date already suggests that could save up to £40/ha on seed costs. It could also aid crop management. A thinner, well-tillered crop is less prone to disease and lodging and any escalation of disease will be slower, allowing wider spraying windows. That is a point which will not be lost on growers who suffered yellow rust this season, and could have implications for machinery costs in terms of the capacity of the sprayer
Cut field passes
A project that looks into such issues in more detail aims to minimise the total number of passes across the field during the season, in a bid to contain machinery, labour and fuel costs.
Work across the UK by ARC and Scottish Agronomy has already shown just three passes can be the most economic way of growing a crop – an autumn or early spring herbicide and insecticide, a single nitrogen dressing and a flag leaf fungicide. "Were hoping to introduce new, more persistent fungicides into the work, which could lead to even greater potential savings," Dr Meakin adds.
Studies on appropriate fungicide doses are already yielding useful advice for growers. Now the work is to be extended to consider the growth enhancement claims for new fungicides. A pilot study has already generated sufficient interest to justify a more detailed investigation, says Dr Meakin. If independent work shows such products can boost yield over and above their disease controlling ability, dose responses will need reconsidering, he notes.
Targeting inputs more precisely is the goal of a new £693,000, five-year project led by Silsoe College to develop guidelines to make the most of precision farming techniques. "We want to find out how to manage variation within crops, rather than how to use the precision farming equipment on offer. That is being taken care of by LINK-funded work. This is more agronomic, looking at how to detect variation, whether it is worth dealing with and only then how to handle it.
"Were already seeing very exciting results on remote sensing, where a digital camera on an aircraft can detect potential crop problems quite early in the growing season. The goal now is to develop very simple advice on how to deal with such variations."
The main outcome of the work to match crop production and end use is the Recommended List. This will increasingly contain information explaining a varietys ability to respond to different circumstances as well as straight performance data, says Dr Meakin.
"There will be more explanation of a varietys make-up, so advisers and growers can make interpretations about how best to manage it.
Matching production and end use will also increasingly follow the example of the oat fractionation project being led by ADAS Rosemaund, where work is assessing both the potential uses of oat extracts in the food industry and the management of growing crops to meet those goals. "This relationship will increasingly go beyond needs and specifications and start looking more at what can be achieved by working together."
Another element of quality research comes back to the idea of forecasting. By assessing the bread-making potential of wheat at early grain fill, there could be scope to adjust late nitrogen management to bolster quality where needed, explains Dr Meakin.
Extensive work will then focus on protecting quality in store and making the most of grain in manufacturing, baking and brewing processes.
"I am confident that when all these projects are combined they will make a very significant difference to the businesses of UK cereal growers, helping them remain competitive on world markets," Dr Meakin concludes. *
Of the HGCAs current total commitment of £14m to the R&D programme, 28% is non-levy funded, thanks to links with commercial and public funding. That is set to rise, with several large projects awaiting approval under the governments SAPPIO (Sustainable Arable Production with Precision and Input Optimisation) LINK programme. That will ensure levy funding spreads further, achieving the best results for growers, notes Dr Meakin.
Levy-funded research will help growers face an uncertain future, with advice emerging earlier and in a move digestible format for farmers, says HGCA research manager Paul Meakin.
Breakdown of 1997/98 HGCA levy rates (pence/t)
Cost to each sector (£m).
CerealCereal Cereal processors
* Projects and management costs