LAST autumn saw a 13% jump in wheat sowings. Coupled with a weak k and a fall in world prices that has led to low forward prices, leaving potential returns so low that the yield penalty on a second wheat crop puts profit in question.
However, there will still be a place for second wheats on many farms, says Chelmsford-based Will Gemmill, farm business consultant at Strutt & Parker.
But farmers must assess their impact on the combined gross margin or, more importantly, the combined net profit of the whole rotation.
They need to work out whether theyd be better to stay with their current rotation or would be financially better off to change to an alternative system which may also reduce their fixed costs, he says.
Mr Gemmill believes there are four main reasons why growers would consider continuing with second wheats:
• There are some who have a soil type capable of producing good, consistent second wheat yields. These tend to be soils with a higher clay content. Strutt & Parker has found that sandy or chalk soils often perform inconsistently;
• Some growers will take the opportunity to grow added value wheats in this slot, particularly group 1 milling wheats. So lower yield potential can be made good by higher protein content and higher selling price;
• Some growers are able to establish a wheat crop cheaply by minimal cultivations or to use the plough strategically in the rotation to control grass weeds;
• There are growers who feel prices have reached their lowest point. These will buck the trend, hoping other growers may be influenced out of wheat production.
Good management techniques can also help bolster second wheat yields. "Last year a number of our managed and agronomy clients farms had record second wheat yields which were almost as good as the first wheats," Mr Gemmill continues.
It is important that second wheats are not drilled too early and at not too high seed rates, specific targets varying according to circumstances. "Theres no hard and fast rule beyond the fact that the heavier the soil, the earlier you can drill. But you shouldnt start before Sept 25."
The main deciding factor is the incidence of take-all, with a trade-off between the yield benefits of earliness of drilling and ultimate yield – the earlier the crop is drilled, the better the yield potential, but the higher the disease risk.
"Seed rate is very much related to drilling date," he says. "In the spring we want a plant count of 160-250 plants/sq. m." But plant number is not the only yardstick – individual plant root mass is also important. "The lower the seed rate, the higher the root mass. you certainly dont want 400 plants/sq. m."
Once the crop is in the ground, it needs to be given as much help as possible, to ensure good root growth, particularly in early spring. Then everything must be geared to getting the plants through their growth stages as quickly as possible, before the onset of take-all.
"Second wheats need nitrogen earlier than first wheats and phosphate levels must be well maintained. *
Should you sow less second wheat this autumn? That is the question. The answer will depend upon more than a simple consideration of seed treatment benefits
and relative crop prices, stresses Chelmsford,
Essex-based consultant Will Gemmill.
SECOND WHEAT PRIORITIES
• Consider cropping implications; alternatives; and soil suitability (high clay content is best).
• Grow for value, eg milling varieties.
• Suits minimal cultivations.
• Use good seed dressing.
• Dont drill too early.
• Dont overdo seed rates.
• In spring, check N & P levels; and micronutrients.
• Exploit latest fungicides technology.