Seed success lies in detail
By Louise Impey
FANCY chasing a seed contract to boost combinable crop margins? If so, you will need to pay close attention to detail, from drilling right through to collection by the merchant.
That is the view of Oxfordshire farmer Michael Stevens, judged this years leading contract seed grower by seed company MSF. Farming 465ha (1150 acres) at Manor Farm, Twyford, near Banbury, Mr Stevens has produced seed crops for over 20 years. Almost 40% of his arable area is currently seed.
"It puts demands on our storage facilities and on our harvest workload," points out Mr Stevens. "This year has been particularly stressful, as harvest was protracted. We like to harvest the seed crops first, to avoid contamination."
Together with farm manager, Robert Webb, Mr Stevens grows wheat, peas and beans on contract for MSF. Oilseed rape is also grown for seed.
"We are mainly growing commercial C2 seed now," comments Mr Webb, who is responsible for all field operations. "Although there is extra effort involved, the rewards are there if you get it right."
Weed control is a key area. An extra wild oats spray and a cleavers treatment in the spring are standard practice, while every seed crop is hand rogued twice a year. Mike Battley of MSF walks the crop as required, giving additional advice on inputs.
"We are fortunate that we do not have a blackgrass or wild oats problem," admits Mr Webb. "But we have to be meticulous about weeds. Apart from possible rejections, we have to think about seed return for future crops."
Seed crops also receive a three-spray fungicide programme, regardless of disease pressure. "Even then, we did get caught out this season with Reaper, which developed fusarium and Septoria nodorum on the ear. But we are told that was not unusual this year and it still passed its germination test."
The additional inputs amount to £60/ha (£25/acre). "There are also the extra labour costs associated with roguing and cleaning. But they are covered by the premium we receive over the standard wheat price at the time of movement."
The biggest problem is getting the rotation right, says Mr Webb. "It was easier when set-aside was at 15%. We have to work some years ahead, but it is always the oilseed rape which seems to create the difficulties. There has to be a seven-year break between successive crops.
"We aim to grow as many added value crops as possible," he continues. "Seed growing can be a bit of a lottery, as decisions are made 14 months before harvest. It is very disappointing if a crop is not wanted after the effort that has gone into growing it."
Harvesting is done to a strict timetable, with extra effort going into cleaning out the combine between crops. "We start with the oilseed rape and harvest peas between the two wheat crops, to flush the combine out. It adds an extra four man days on to an already very busy time.
"Flexible storage is also needed. We have got 12 20t bins and 2500t of on-floor storage, which can be partitioned. Sometimes we separate individual fields, so we do not jeopardise the whole crop. All the seed crops are put over the cleaner before they are presented."
Seed crops are inspected for certification in spring and early summer. Once clearance from MSF has been received to harvest a seed crop, it is combined, stored and dried to 15%. "We then sample it and do an analysis for purity, rapid seed viability, seed vigour and disease," says Malcolm Williams, general manager of MSF Arable.
"If it satisfies these criteria, we then collect it and conduct a germination and purity test before it is unloaded. Germination has been a problem in many northern crops this year. It has been a difficult season, with the weather going against growers. We have had to reject some for fusarium."
His final advice to prospective seed growers is that there are no short cuts. "Seed growing requires commitment and dedication. Michael Stevens and Robert Webb have proved, year on year, that they are professional in their approach." *
Seed production was especially stressful,this year, says Michael Stevens (left) here examining a sample with manager, Robert Webb (centre), and MSFs general manager, Malcolm Williams.
Seed growing demands well planned rotations, says Robert Webb.
• Attention to detail vital.
• £60/ha extra variable costs.
• 14 month lead time.
• Segregated storage.
• 15-20% rejection in 97.