In a challenge set by AHDB, two monitor farmers looked to improve their arable businesses in a 12-month time frame, with a modest £20.
Speaking at the AHDB monitor farm debate at Cereals 2017, Huntingdon monitor farmer, Russell McKenzie and Stowmarket monitor farmer, Brian Barker explained how they invested their £20.
Farming about 667 hectares (1,648 acres) of arable land in Suffolk, Mr Barker spent his £20 on benchmarking his wheat crop acreage.
Throughout the growing season, he compared plant establishment, shoot counts, tiller and grain numbers with standards set by AHDB in its wheat growth guide, reflecting his ‘measure to manage’ philosophy.
The only outlay was the price of the scrap metal that was used to create a 50cm by 50cm quadrant to assist with the 890 plant and tiller counts he conducted over the course of the season.
The results which emerged from his measurements conjured up many questions about his current farm practice.
Mr Barker said: “Previously I set my seed rate assuming 15 per cent would not establish. When I actually did my establishment counts, I worked out that I had lost 25 per cent of the seed I had planted. So that posed the first question, should I be upping my seed rates?
“On comparing different varieties I found that while Leeds flew out of the ground and produced 110 per cent of my target plant population, Zulu never really got going, so this will feed into my variety choices next season.”
Over winter, a further 7 per cent of plants died, on average. However, where fertiliser had been placed alongside the seed at sowing, losses were only around 4 per cent.
The number of shoots per sq.m ranged from 892-1,085 where crops were very thick. This translated into a predicted yield of between 8.2t/ha (3.3t/acre) to 13.2t/ha (5.3t/acre).
Using predicted yield, Mr Barker has been able to target his fertiliser application to areas with higher yield potential. As a result, he has reduced his total annual spend on fertiliser by £2,500.
Mr McKenzie farms about 750ha (1,852 acres) of heavy land near Cambridgeshire and is in the process of switching from an intensive cultivation system to no-till.
His £20 went towards four pairs of 100 per cent cotton boxer shorts, leaving just enough change for a spade. His unusual purchases were used to assess the health of his soils in each of his cultivation systems.
He explained: “You take your 100 per cent cotton pants, bury them for eight weeks and the state in which the pants emerge should give you an indication of how good your soil health is. The more shredded the underpants, the higher the level of soil microbial activity.”
As he expected, the underwear from the no-till land was in tatters, while the underwear from the land which had been intensively cultivated, was intact.
This approach has proved the value in reduced cultivation and has allowed Mr McKenzie to gauge when fields are ready to move to no-till.
“If the soil is not in the right condition before going into no-till, it can really come back to bite you, so it is a key thing for us.”