Nematode battle a priority
WAGING war on potato cyst nematode and trying to secure a more even financial performance from potatoes are the two main goals for Paul Drinkwater.
"Potatoes have been grown on this land for a long, long time, so PCN is a big issue," says Mr Drinkwater, manager on the 803ha (1984 acre) Worlick Farm, part of the in-hand farming on Lord de Ramseys Cambs estate.
"We were the first farm on the fen to suffer pallida in 1963 and nearly stopped growing the crop altogether. Rotations had been as tight as one in three, so there was a huge nematode problem." Winding PCN populations down from an average of 50-60 eggs/g and up to 200 in places is now a key objective.
More consistent prices from the 80ha (198 acre) crop are also wanted. "We dont want prices fluctuating from £320/t to £60/t."
Growing for pre-packs helps. But not all the land is suitable. Each year 20-32ha (50-80 acres) on scabbier land is unlikely to make the grade.
Maris Piper stored and bagged on-farm for chip shop sales is proving a useful backstop. "We now do 20t a week – thats 520t a year at a contracted £120/t to the end of May and then £170/t. It gives us the consistent price we want."
But securing a contract took commitment. "In the first year the ware market went to £320/t. We stuck with the contract and the next year, when ware was £60/t they stood by us."
Fianna, King Edward and Agata for packing are grown and boxed at Worlick Farms then stored and packed by QV Foods, mostly for Tesco.
An environmental plan drawn up with FWAG includes tree and hedge planting, waste recycling and plans for 20m (66ft) set-aside headlands which will also aid machine turns.
Attention to seed size and spacing ensures a suitable sample, with quality preserved at harvest by Plastozote padding, careful trailer filling and minimal drops. "We aim to handle potatoes like eggs. Nobody really does yet, but its what were aiming for."
Thanks to targeted Telone (1,3 dichloropropene) treatment, judicious use of nematicide and longer rotations big PCN populations are now coming under control. "I want to move from one in five to one in eight, so were taking on neighbouring land, where other farms are going out of potatoes for example," Mr Drinkwater says.
GPS mapping of nematode hot spots will help too. "I wouldnt use it to patch treat nematicide. But it will help us target Telone." Land coming potatoes will be tested and treated a year ahead where counts exceed 60 eggs/g.
Volunteer control is also important. Groundkeepers are targeted in beet and Fazor (maleic hydrazide) used in potatoes. The latter also aids sprout control in bulk-stored Maris Piper. "Were opening the store every week to bag, so CIPC gassing is not practical. But with maleic hydrazide and CIPC at Christmas we can keep sprouts at bay until August," says Mr Drinkwater.
Earlier this year he took the farmer BASIS qualification and now takes a keen interest in recommendations, working closely with agronomist Dennis Walsh of QV Foods.
In future Mr Drinkwater wants to erode PCN populations further and work ever more closely with supermarkets.
Minimising overheads is also a goal. Contract work helps offset sprayer costs and the 6-row harvester may be shared with a neighbouring in-hand farm, in exchange for access to a more up-to-date grader. "Increasing productivity will mean greater profits – I hope," says Mr Drinkwater. *
Crop inputs to suit market
Seed is all SE3 or better from known sources in Scotland. "We have built up the relationships and they work," says Mr Drinkwater. It is mostly 30-40mm to save chitting room and is all treated with Fungazil (imazalil).
Land is ploughed and ridged in autumn and declodded in spring. Base nutrients are contractor applied as a liquid and chitted seed planted from Apr 8 to May 6.
Mechanical weeding and split rate Sencorex (metribuzin) help keep a heavy weed burden at bay, with Titus (rimsulfuron) in reserve. "It works well, but youve got to be spot on with timing," he says.
Fields receive individual management, within the same overall plan, apart from chippers which get less early water and are spaced at 30.5cm (12in) rather than 25.4cm (10in) to boost tuber size.
Most crops are irrigated to a balance sheet schedule from April. "We tried neutron probes but werent convinced." Booms have replaced rainguns to speed application.
Nitrogen rates are down from 200kg/ha (160 units/acre) to boost quality, ranging from 140kg/ha (112 units/acre) for Fianna to 180kg/ha (144 units/acre) for Piper.
Slugs are a big worry so half rate pellets go on with each blight spray. "Provided we test to prove slugs are there this is acceptable to Tesco. If an input is justified they do back us."
• Manages 803ha at Ramsey.
• Peat and mineral fen.
• Pre-pack and chip markets.
• Supplies Tesco via QV Foods.
• PCN major issue.
• Rotation moving to 1 in 8.
• Most potatoes irrigated.
• SP Riecam AVR harvester.
• Varieties: M Piper, Fianna, Agata, King Edward.
• Yield: 40-55t/ha.
• Variable costs: £/ha (£/acre)
• Seed 380 (154)
• Ferts/trace 167 (68)
• Herbicide 90 (36)
• Fungicide 103 (42)
• Insecticide 347 (140)
• Tot (exc desic) 1087 (440)