Having to adopt more environmentally friendly production methods to supply a niche market causes few problems for one enthusiastic wheat grower on the fens.
Robert Harris reports
CONSERVATION grade wheat ensures a ready market and decent profits at David Tonges Chapel and Anchor Farms, Martin Dales, Woodhall Spa, Lincs.
Mr Tonge grows 18.2ha (45 acres) of the crop, and has to satisfy the Conservation Guild, which inspects farms for wheat buyers W Jordan Cereals of Biggleswade, Beds, that he is running his farm with due concern for the environment.
Each season, just before harvest, an inspector visits the farm. Field records and accounts are scrutinised, to ensure only approved products have been used at permitted rates.
The farm is walked to identify wildlife habitat and its management. Conservation headlands are encouraged. "We do not have the 4-6m they like to see," says Mr Tonge. "Most of my fields are long and narrow, so I would lose too much land. But ditches have grass banks wide enough to provide a buffer and habitat."
Choosing the right variety is vital, to produce the right kind of wheat flakes and to ensure the crop makes the most of limited inputs.
Mr Tonge uses Buster and Lynx. Both stand well – growth regulator use is severely limited – and the latter, especially, has good disease resistance.
He drills after Oct 15 to reduce the need for BYDV control and to ease control of plentiful blackgrass. "No residual herbicides are allowed, so I do not treat the crop until spring."
Ploughing and power harrowing soon after combining chits weeds. Further cultivation and drilling kills those, reducing the burden in the crop. Several contact fop and dim herbicides are permitted, and Mr Tonge uses fenoxaprop-ethyl (Cheetah) at full rate in the spring. "I usually go in late March or early April to get weeds in one hit."
Broad-leaved weeds can be tackled with herbicides which break down rapidly like CMPP and MCPA. "We have been allowed to use some Starane at half rate to kill cleavers, a real problem in some fields. I cant afford a contaminated sample." In dry springs Mr Tonge also uses a Harvey Tearaway mechanical weeder.
Use of bagged nitrogen is limited to 125kg/ha (100 units/acre), so Mr Tonge uses plenty of chicken muck on the preceding crop of sugar beet to raise fertility.
Buster and Lynx root deeply and quickly, scavenging nitrogen early, Mr Tonge maintains. Usually, about 37.5kg/ha (30 units/acre) of N is applied at about GS30-31 (ear at 1cm-first node detectable). The rest goes on in mid-April.
Fungicides are strictly limited. Mr Tonge relies on a food grade product called Brimstone Plus to control disease, backed up with sulphur as needed. Seaweed extract is added for its fungicidal iodine properties and to improve vigour.
Crops are sprayed when disease levels dictate, rather than at certain growth stages. "Occasionally I have used Calixin for mildew on Buster."
Some chemistry can be used in an emergency. This season about 1.6ha (4 acres) of wheat was hit badly by wheat bulb fly. "The only thing we can use is an OP. But a quick phone call is all it takes."
Mr Tonge reckons his crop suffers a yield penalty of about 1.25t/ha (0.5t/acre) compared with conventionally grown crops in the area. "I get about 3t/acre on average."
But the lower input costs, coupled with a 10% premium over feed wheat price at the time of movement more than make up for that, he believes.
"It is also nice to have a ready market for your produce," he adds. "It is hard work when you have to sell it. There was a lot of unsold wheat not so long ago around here."n
Conservation grade wheat for Jordans snack foods and cereal products give David Tonge an assured market, price premium and lower input costs. Crop management is more tricky, but not impossible.
• Halfway house between organic and conventional.
• 10% price premium for milling wheat.
• 1.25t/ha yield penalty.
• Lower growing costs.
• Limits on fertiliser and agchem choice and rate.
• Right variety choice vital.
• On-farm inspections.