Religiously hand-roguing black-grass has left one farmer seeing substantial savings on herbicides as weed burden on the farm falls dramatically.
Lincolnshire farmer Andrew Ward MBE told an audience at CropTec how a no-nonsense approach to black-grass has seen weed numbers at harvest fall to zero for the fourth year in a row.
“We hand-rogue every field every year regardless. Our highest cost this year was £210 per hectare which was one field covered three times. This is a horrendous cost but you have to look at comparable herbicide costs. We spent a lot on herbicides when we had black-grass in our crop compared to now when we have a black-grass free crop.”
Mr Ward calculated that in 2015 his average hand-roguing costs were £58/ha which have fallen to £21/ha in 2018. Herbicide costs for winter wheat now average £64/ha.
“This year we have been trialling areas of the farm with no autumn herbicide treatments, just glyphosate. It will be interesting to see how much black-grass there was in the seedbank come May.”
Refusing to drill before October 25 and ditching the plough in 2002, a move towards spring cropping has also helped Mr Ward cut black-grass populations, despite some of his heavier soils being 58 per cent clay.
“We adapted our growing programme to focus more on spring crops. We were growing 50 per cent winter wheat which has now fallen to 20 per cent. Soils are worked straight behind the combine so 80 per cent of crops and land is ready for winter by August 25. Land destined for spring barley and spring wheat goes into the winter in good condition, and therefore comes out in good condition.”
Mr Ward’s key to good establishment is early preparation. “Soils are worked straight behind the combine so 80 per cent of crops and land is ready for winter by August 25. Land destined for spring barley and spring wheat goes into the winter in good condition, and therefore comes out in good condition.”
Mr Ward said all farmer could be in the same position as him. “It needs a different mindset. If you don’t change what you’re doing and try a different approach, you won’t get rid of black-grass.”
Three farmers and one soil expert led the crop establishment discussion, sponsored by Horsch and Certis UK and chaired by AHDB strategic farmer, Brian Barker.
Russell McKenzie, a no-till farmer growing on heavy clay soils in Cambridgeshire changed his rotation to fight black-grass, which has since seen his herbicide costs fall from around £140/ha to £80/ha.
“Our herbicide costs were travelling in the wrong direction - we were growing a tight rotation of two wheats and oilseed rape, which was driven by margin. Now we’re more varied with six crops in the rotation which has reduced herbicides costs and helped with black-grass seed return.”
Mr McKenzie, who studied a Nuffield Scholarship on soil health said: “There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach because all soil types have a different option. What will work in one place won’t work elsewhere so you have to learn and adapt your system.”
Using limited technology to tackle the weed, Mr Ward said attention to detail is the most important factor.
“My number one advice is not to let black-grass seed even if it means taking out the whole field which we have done before - think of the long-term benefits.”
Adrian Whitehead, who manages a group of farm businesses in Norfolk, producing high value crops including onions and potatoes said a zero-tolerance approach to black-grass is the only way to tackle it.
“We spray complete patches of black-grass off – we haven’t used Atlantis for five or six years and now have a pretty clean farm. A multi-prong approach can work but I can’t stress the importance of land drainage enough, because black-grass loves cold wet soils and heavy clays are a prime example.”
Keen to try a variety of approaches, Mr Whitehead’s top tip from the live Q&A was to experiment.
“Silts are fragile so you have to be kind to them. We have tried a number of different tillage options but higher value crop like potatoes and onions need to be ploughed. We tried alternatives but saw a fall in yield. Saying that, they are spring crops which is helping with our black-grass control. This has been a significant change for us in the last few years, going from 80 per cent winter crops down to around 50 per cent.”