Consistent quality defies
EXTRACTING big wheat yields from grade three and four chalky clay loams at 145-210m above sea level on Lambourn Downs is far from easy. But good husbandry which secures regular milling wheat premiums and strict cost control mean the crop is still profitable for Patrick Levinge.
"We know it isnt classic wheat land, but we can get milling quality consistently and that makes it our highest earning crop," says Mr Levinge, who manages 170ha (420 acres) of arable, 300 Mule ewe lambs, horse liveries and a range of diversification enterprises on 60ha (148 acres) at Maddle Farm for Nick and Pauline Spence.
Winter rape and spring barley are also in the rotation, but winter barley is a non-starter because of barley mosaic virus.
With fields ranging from black puff to Icknield clay, all over drought-prone chalk, crop husbandry is a challenge. Throw in a big onion couch problem, herbicide-tolerant blackgrass and significant wild oat pressure and the need for skilled management is clear.
Although yields range from 7.8-10t/ha (3.2-4t/acre) according to drought pressure, quality consistently scores 11-11.5% protein (old measure), 78-82kg/hl and 250-350 Hagberg.
A repeat of that quality will see Abbott secure a contracted £13/t premium this harvest. "That goes a long way to offsetting the variable yield," Mr Levinge says. Rialto is also grown, mainly for its drought tolerance.
Challenging winter conditions and limited tillering on the hills mean seed rates are kept relatively high at 350seeds/sq m for Oct 15 sowings to ensure spring populations produce 600ears/sq m. "We work to lower rates as we come earlier and will probably try 200seeds/sq m for Sept 22 sowings this year," Mr Levinge says. All seed is C2 purchased with Panoctine (guazatine) dressing or Baytan (fuberidazole + triadimenol) to boost tillering.
"We never get the best yields, so we aim to spend as little as we can on growing the crop. Once the seed is in the ground we know we will get a return on that investment come what may, so inputs are only used as needed. Its all about trying to find where to draw the line with inputs so we try hard to reduce their use year on year."
Herbicides are the most intensively used input – with good reason. "The grass weed pressure has built up after years of incorporating horse bedding from the local racing stables. This locks up nitrogen, brings in weed seeds and makes soils too light to work well," says Mr Levinge, who is BASIS qualified.
But the biggest problem is onion couch, a lover of chalk soils, which has demanded a rigorous cropping rethink. "Even repeat hits with Dagger and Grasp at the right timings wont sort it out." Flowering and seeding may be arrested but sections of rhizome still remain viable, Mr Levinge says.
The weed likes second wheats, which also suffer from take-all on the drought-prone ground. Careful gross margin analysis shows second wheat can no longer match spring barley for profitability and it is being dropped accordingly.
The move to spring sowing will allow time for an over-winter onslaught on the onion couch. "We can use Roundup in the first wheat pre-harvest, then leave stubbles untouched to encourage onion couch re-growth before spraying it off again at its most vulnerable stage before cultivations in the spring. Together with the use of high rate Falcon in oilseed rape that should help us get to grips with this damaging weed and grow first wheats with a reasonable level of inputs."
Blackgrass with Cheetah-type herbicide tolerance is so far limited to one part of one field. Careful machinery hygiene and greater use of Avadex should keep it at bay, Mr Levinge hopes. Any grassweed survivors plus spring germinating wild oats, a legacy of the horse bedding, are spot-treated with spring Topik (clodinafop-propargyl).
A simple fungicide strategy has kept wheats clean through to harvest. But Mr Levinge is not convinced by advice to load strobilurin chemistry into flag leaf timings. "This year we kept crops clean from T1 to T2 with a triazole mix, which was twice as long as the gap from T2 to T3. I cant see the point in using strobilurins at T2. Next year we will save all the strobilurin until T3. On this land, I believe that will give us a greater yield response and better grain quality."
Nitrogen rate is a consistent 210kg/ha (170 units/acre) supplied as a branded prill. "We never start before GS30, to avoid excess tillering. Too many farms go too early to produce a good looking crop, but fail to capitalise on all that early growth. I prefer to let crops look a little yellow and even rather rough in mid-March rather than grow extra lush crops that tiller too much and end up with small ears and small grain, with too much disease and lodging."
Urea is only used if conditions are very dry at early booting to boost protein. Copper and sulphur are used in wheat regularly, plus other nutrients as needed.
Overheads are kept at bay thanks to a careful maintenance programme to extend machine life. Mr Levinge is the only labour. Last years accounts show total power, machinery and labour costs of £240/ha (£97/acre).
Environmental measures include 5000 trees planted over five years, introduction of beetle banks, adoption of ICM principles, a planned LEAF audit, little ipu use and some Arable Stewardship land. *