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Cutting input costs: Why yield is not always king

Commercial scale on-farm trials at AHDB Cereals and Oilseed’s Strategic Farms gave growers a taste of new approaches to cutting costs and boosting yields that they can try on their own farm businesses.

Brian Barker.
Brian Barker.

Cutting cost of production is an ambition which sits at the top of most growers’ lists, but unknown variability in weather and disease pressure means there is a fine line between risking a reduced fungicide programme and the security of a protected crop.


The impact that varying levels of ag-chem investment has on different winter wheat variety yields and cost of production has been explored at the Strategic Farm East in Suffolk.




Last year the varieties KWS Siskin, Shabras, Graham, KWS Santiago and KWS Silverstone were drilled across 20 plots on October 2, with each variety having a low, medium and high fungicide strategy applied.


Monthly plant counts were taken from emergence to harvest, growth rates were monitored and NDVI was collected.

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Brian Barker, Strategic Farm East host farmer, said: “We had some big variations in tiller counts starting to come at T1. But on May 8 we started seeing really dramatic changes. There were a few varieties that highlighted themselves as being very good at putting tillers on. Graham was one, Siskin was similar. Shabras was very thick but tailing off. Silverstone never really held high numbers – the crop didn’t look thin but just didn’t have high numbers.


“Santiago put a lot of biomass on at the end - we know that Santiago can deliver high yields, but it felt like it came to the party too late.”




The results found that varieties with higher resistance ratings held onto green leaf area for longer under all fungicide regimes, and top yields came from Siskin at 12.28tonnes/hectare, and Graham at 12.13t/ha, both following a high input fungicide programme.



However, in the more resistant varieties there was a low response to increased fungicide spend, and the best net margin was Graham in a low input situation, with a net margin of £849/ha.


This was followed by Siskin under the same low input fungicide regime, which had a net margin of £830/ha, compared to the top yielding plot at £772/ha. KWS Siskin and Graham have the higher disease resistance ratings of varieties grown in the trials.

Mr Barker said: “It made me question my approach and it’s really an interesting exercise that anyone can do. Leave half a tramline untreated and test yourself how low can you go.


“It’s about your attitude to risk – our general approach to farming has to change with the seasons, and it is going to be a completely different scenario looking at our lower biomass crops this year. We don’t want to keep farming the way we have done previously. Have a clean slate and start again.”




On the Strategic Farm West, based near Leamington Spa and run by Rob Fox, reduced inputs trials were carried out on a field of Graham split into two treatments.


The farm standard crop received a conventional insecticide and fungicide programme, regardless of pest and disease pressure, while the reduced input crop’s treatment was based on pest/disease risk and development.


The field was also split into two different soil types, heavy red marl and medium/heavy loam.


The yield results found no significant difference between the farm standard and low input treatments, or the level of disease in each plot.


However, larger differences were seen between the two soil types at almost 2t/ha in places.

Strategic Farm East - Total fungicide spend

Strategic Farm East Results

Top yielding:

  • Siskin high input – 12.28t/ha
  • Graham high input – 12.13t/ha
  • Graham mid input– 11.83t/ha
  • Silverstone high input – 11.68t/ha

Best net margin:

  • Graham low input - £849/ha
  • Siskin low input – £830/ha
  • Graham medium £784/ha
  • Siskin high input – £772/ha
  • Untreated: £0/ha
  • Low input: £31/ha
  • Mid input: £80/ha
  • High input: £122/ha
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