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Talking Arable with Sophie Alexander: A sense of perspective

Cloudy is the perfect crop walker. The vantage point I gain from our combined height of 2.56m is the next best thing to a drone’s-eye view. Swishing through the fields on horseback is an efficient and enjoyable way to tour the farm and examine how crops are progressing.

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Through Cloudy’s pricked ears, you are looking at two varieties of Group 4 winter wheat. Costello on the left, Siskin on the right. Both crops were drilled on November 1 at 250kg/ha. So as to make an informal comparison of their performance, we established the varieties next to each other. Both varieties are infected with Septoria, but for now my preference would still be for Siskin over Costello. I will reserve final judgment, however, until quality and quantity are known at harvest. More on that later.

 

Wheat is our first cereal and we sow both autumn and spring varieties. To minimise disease, I grow wheat just once during our 6-year rotation. Spring wheat often achieves the higher protein content and quality required for milling, while winter wheat tends to produce lower protein but better yields. My 2017 spring milling wheat sold for a premium of £35/tonne. However, this was still £120/ha less than the return produced by the higher yielding winter crop. You might think it a no-brainer to stick to growing only winter varieties and forget the milling premium. But, as ever, there are other considerations – such as spreading the workload and mitigating the risk of unfavourable weather conditions.

 

After some years of trial and error, I have accepted that good proteins from winter wheat are unreliable and hard to achieve on our light, chalky soils. Put simply, when the three-year fertility building ley is broken in the autumn, some of the nutrients and nitrogen released by the decomposing green manure leach away before the young wheat plants are ready to utilise them. In spring, when the soils are warmer, the plant is ready to take up the nutrients more efficiently, helping to create a better protein content. However, the shorter growing season limits the yield.

 

When the Organic Research Centre used the Ndicea nitrogen modelling tool to examine nutrient availability over the course of our rotation, it demonstrated that the loss from over-winter leaching could be costlier than the penalty of lower spring yields. Having now scaled up our compost production perhaps, over time, we can do better.

 

Modern seed varieties are not generally well suited to low-input systems. The AHDB Recommended List favours short straw types, which have poor weed smothering ability, shallow roots with less efficient nutrient scavenging capacity and, without herbicides or pesticides, low disease resistance. Growth in the organic market – and fewer chemical options – have encouraged R&D in more resilient varieties. I have been following Walnes Seeds and Innovative Farmers who, with AHDB, are running trials designed to improve the selection of organic seed.

 

One of the pleasures of going away for a week is returning home and seeing how the crops have developed. Spring crops look promising, particularly the Westminster barley but there is still a long way to go and no rain on the horizon. The spring Elyann oats are showing signs of stress from lack of water and you can discern some empty florets at the base of the panicles.

 

Agri-EPI held a precision technology meeting at Hemsworth in June. There was interesting discussion around the drivers and barriers to farm businesses adopting new technology, as well as some demonstrations of what new precision programmes can offer.

 

I am sending drilling dates and seed rates to IPF’s Contour platform so that it can calculate algorithmic yield projections.

 

 

 


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Talking Agronomy with Luke Wheeler: How to end the OSR season Talking Agronomy with Luke Wheeler: How to end the OSR season
Talking Arable with Neil MacLeod: Desperate for rain Talking Arable with Neil MacLeod: Desperate for rain

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