Premium plan wins day
Managing wheat plots on
the Cereals event site may
seem far removed from
farming reality. But the
results of this years
weekly Farmer Challenge
provide ample food for thought.
Robert Harris reports
PREMIUM-EARNING high quality wheats with yields to match the best feed varieties reaped big profits in this years Lloyds Bank Farmer Challenge.
Winning group, Huntingdon Snifters, entered the competition for the third time in four years. In 1994, they took first prize with barn-filling yields of Brigadier. The following year, the same approach earned them second place.
This year saw a shift in tactics. The group chose Charger, a provisionally recommended breadmaker with top yields. The aim was to boost income with a premium to combat sliding wheat prices.
"We decided Charger had the potential for top yields with the chance of a premium," says spokes-man David Brown. The plan paid off – the crop yielded 8.8t/ha (3.6t/acre) of high quality grain, worth £104/t (see table). That produced a profit of £22.37/t before the IACS payment. Teams growing feed wheats were left relying on that subsidy to stay in business.
Pleased with yield
"Given the lack of spring rain we were pleased with 8.8t/ha, although we had budgeted for more than 10t/ha," says the groups John Burgess.
Specific weight was 77.5kg/hl, protein 11.6%, and Hagberg falling number 333, easily falling into the breadmaking band. Price was well above the £5/t premium expected. "We were fortunate to get £104/t. We sold at just the right time and got an added value wheat premium which probably wont be seen again given the big swing to such varieties this autumn," Mr Burgess comments.
Other groups taking the quality route included second-placed Clayland Farmers. The group chose Rialto, which was sold for the same price as Huntingdons Charger, but yielded slightly less at 8.6t/ha (3.5t/acre).
That, and higher machinery costs due to more passes being made through the crop during the season, saw profits fall £2/t short of Hunt-ingdons £51.60/t winning figure.
But Claylands result was still well above the best feed wheat profit, which was achieved by Kimbolton District Discussion Group. The groups Brigadier was the highest yielding variety on the heavy boulder clay site at Bill Turneys Weybridge Farm, Alconbury, near Huntingdon, Cambs.
It yielded just under 9t/ha (3.6t/acre) of good quality grain, but fetched £18/t less than the higher quality varieties. Although growing costs were kept at £85/t, just £4/t more than Huntingdons, the poor price saw profits tumble by £22/t to £1/t before the IACS top-up.
The tricky season tested the teams skills to the limit. Ground was ploughed and power harrowed, then rolled immediately after sowing.
Bone dry soils
Huntingdon drilled 155kg/ha of seed, equivalent to 375 seeds/sq m. Although the Oct 1 sowing date was later than other groups, all plots emerged at much the same time. Soils were bone dry, and seed refused to germinate until rain fell in November. Despite that, enough emerged to produce a reasonable stand. "In hindsight, we could have drilled a bit later," says Mr Brown.
The Huntingdon group maintained its method of minimising the number of passes through the crop, an approach tried and tested in previous competitions. Each sprayer pass is costed at £6.60/ha (£2.67/acre), and fertiliser spreading 30p/ha more, so savings can soon mount up, Mr Brown notes.
Apart from an insurance dressing of slug pellets – the wheat followed oilseed rape – only three passes were made through the crop. The first was with the sprayer on Dec 5, when 0.6 litres/ha of Panther (DFF + IPU) mixed with 1.4 litres/ha of straight IPU was applied to control low levels of blackgrass, chickweed and oilseed rape.
Insecticide was added to protect against BYDV. Total cost was £15.59/ha before application costs, pushing the spend above other groups who elected to spray cheaper products in the spring or not at all.
But big savings were made in the spring without damaging yield. The gate was shut until April 4, when 206kg/ha (165 units/acre) of nitrogen was applied in one hit. All other groups went two or three times, adding £6.90-£13.80 to costs. Residual nitrogen levels ranged from 141 to 212kg/ha, so there was no need to go any earlier, says Mr Brown.
Low disease pressure and a dry spring allowed the group to cut out an early fungicide and delay application until May 23, when flag leaves had emerged. Growth regulator was also omitted on the thin stand.
Just 0.3 litres/ha each of Alto (cyproconazole) and Opus (epoxiconazole) was applied, with mineral oil to boost uptake. The aim was to achieve a combination of kick-back from Alto, plus greater persistency from Opus, says Nick Myers, agronomist member of the Huntingdon Snifters.
Despite heavy rain in the latter half of June, the tactic kept crops clean enough through to harvest, for just £15.30/ha (£6.20/acre). That was well ahead of the other groups, who applied between two and four fungicides, often with growth regulator and trace elements. Total chemical spend was £27.80/ha. *
Wheat profits of £22.37/t, before IACS, won the Black Horse trophy for the Huntingdon Snifters in the 1997 Farmer Challenge, organised by the RASE, Lloyds TSB and farmers weekly. Ready to spray the champagne are (left to right) Tom Moore, John Burgess, Nick Myers, Ray Woolway, David Brown and Geoff Sheppard.
Appl costs 188.20
*£51.60/t if IACS is included.