An innovative UK agriculture could lead the way in the adoption of an integrated approach to crop protection according to Clare Bend, head of technical at Agrii.
Challenges such as pest, weed and disease resistance have inspired a radical rethink of agronomy in the last decade, says Clare Bend.
“We believe this trend will continue over the next 10 years. The arable farmer of 2027 will definitely have to take a more integrated approach if he or she is to achieve good results.
“Companies like Agrii have been strongly advocating integration of control methods, whether targeting black-grass, septoria or barley yellow dwarf virus-carrying aphids. Use of resistant varieties, changing drill dates, new cultivation and establishment systems, soil health and chemistry, will all be seamlessly employed to achieve a sustainable outcome.”
The need for a more integrated approach comes against a backcloth of static or no growth for crop protection products in the UK, and a change of emphasis for many manufacturers.
Ms Bend says: “The UK is already a well-established market and there has been a high level of investment in crop protection. At the same time we are losing actives faster than we are gaining them and, while there undoubtedly will be new actives coming onto the market, they are becoming harder to discover, and the costs of registration have escalated.
That said, Brexit may result in a more UK-focused pragmatic registration system – only time will tell. “In addition, weed resistance continues to grow, and once the actives are lost, they are proving difficult to replace. Agronomists are doing all they can to provide strong advice on ways to reduce the likelihood of resistance, and there may be technology in the future which can counteract resistance. In the meantime we need to find different strategies.
“Furthermore, some manufacturers are changing the emphasis of their R&D into other spheres such as genetics, traits, biostimulants and other biological pest control agents. While this is not true of all companies, this change of emphasis is an acknowledgement of the increasing importance of an integrated approach. By 2027, I believe the arable farmer will need all the tools in the box.”
The shift of emphasis highlighted by Ms Bend is borne out by independent reports from Agfunder, a global agriculture marketplace for ag and ag-tech startups.
In 2015 it reported that biological inputs such as biopesticides, bio-fertilisers and soil amendments dominated the soil and crop technology sector, accounting for 71% of the $168 million worth of investment.
Crop nutrition will be a vital component of this integrated approach and Ms Bend’s colleague Ewan McFarlane, Agrii’s digital business development manager, says failings in crop nutrition are the reason varieties on the Recommended List with high yield potential are not delivering at the present time.
Mr McFarlane says: “We have the varieties with the potential to deliver increased yields but crop nutrition is the weak link in the supply chain.
Independent tests show the soil organic matter has been reducing for about 30-40 years, with a subsequent reduction in all the micro nutrients such as boron, selenium, copper and molybdenum.
“We can use leaf tissue analysis to look at these micro nutrient deficiencies, and we are getting good economic yield responses to these micro nutrients which we would never have dreamt of putting on 25 years ago.
We have shown the application of small amounts of these nutrients provides an excellent return on investment. “By doing leaf analysis prior to T0, T1 and T2 sprays, we can look at the deficiencies and provide a precise, evidence-based application.
There is no reason to think this trend will not continue and be an important element of integrated agronomy in 2027.” While the general movement towards more precise, sub-field applications in other areas will be dominant in 10 years’ time, Mr McFarlane says applying such strategies to micro-nutrients will be extremely challenging.
He hopes by the time we get to 2027, the current guidance on nutrient application rates will have been updated. “The current guidance for macro and micro nutrients was developed in the 1960s and 70s when the average wheat yield was seven-anda-half tonnes.
As yields, and the offtake of nutrients from the soil have increased, we have not been compensating. It’s crucial we have new recommendations which take into account modern yield levels and the decline in soil organic matter levels.”
David Langton, Agrii’s head of crop science sees our understanding of both micro nutrients and biostimulants improving greatly over the next decade. He says: “I don’t see either of these product categories replacing traditional chemistry, but they can improve and work with current products.
We don’t fully understand the way they work but major manufacturers have invested heavily in this area and are doing the work to better understand the molecular structures and the way they operate.”
Mr Langton believes one of the areas where biostimulants could make a significant difference is in plant health. He says: “There is a key category of biostimulants called elicitors. These work with the plant’s own defence mechanisms – the equivalent of a human’s immune system – to stimulate a greater response to diseases.”
The better flow of data will also play a key part in the implementation of successful integrated farming in the future. Mr McFarlane says only 10-15% of recommendations which go through farm management software such as Muddy Boots or Gatekeeper, have a spatial reference which will allow them to track and analyse their success.
The lack of context makes it very difficult to analyse that data. “Once we know what the yield is on a particular part of the field, and what the inputs and other factors, such as climate, were in that area, then we can do the ‘big data’ analysis to help us to understand exactly what is happening and plan accordingly,” he says.
The growing importance of this area is emphasised by Origin Enterprises’ recent acquisition of the Resterra Group, which includes AgSpace and Intelligent Precision Farm. The whole area of better use of data and more sophisticated benchmarking is one which Mr McFarlane believes will have to improve massively over the next 10 years. Current systems encouraging benchmarking are looking at whole farm profitability.
“There are three critical metrics we need to look at,” he says, “One is the unit cost of production per tonne, which is the one where the agronomist can have the most impact; second, gross margin per hectare, which is down to the marketing ability of the farmer; and finally, the overall profitability of the farm.
We need to move to be looking in much more detail at unit cost of production, and the data system we will have in 10 years’ time should enable us to do this on a field-by-field or sub-field basis.”
One of the areas which may be influenced by increased data in the future is rotations. Agrii has been running research for 17 years at its Stow Longa Technology Centre looking at winter and spring cropping and different break crops.
Traditionally arable farms used these kind of rotations, but while blackgrass was fully contained by the actives available, most farms went over to winter cropping only. With a clear reduction in the effectiveness and availability of actives, there is likely to be a return to greater use of rotations and different cultivation practices as part of an integrated approach.
At the moment much of the rotation is around winter oilseed rape or winter beans and winter cereals then into spring cereals or peas and beans.
However, Colin Lloyd, head of Agronomy at Agrii, believes that by 2027 it is entirely possible we will be seeing early maturing soya, possibly as far north as the Humber.
Spelt wheat is another possibility. It is very competitive with black-grass and would work with the rapidly expanding health food market. Chickpeas and navy beans are also an option. Mr Lloyd says: “While there is a possibility we will have a new active against black-grass in the next 10 years, past experience has shown we cannot rely on one active.
Cultivation strategies – drilling dates, rotations, cropping – are going to be absolutely crucial in the future. We must learn the lesson that the only way to sustain a new active is to protect it by using cultivation strategies.” Plugging potential gaps in the crop protection armoury left by the reduction in the effectiveness of actives is also something which concerns Mr Langton, and he says there will be an increasing role for bio-pesticides.
“In a situation where we have reduced activity from some chemicals, an alternative which does half or threequarters of a job is better than nothing, and this is where some of the bio-pesticides could come in. They will work in a complementary way with existing chemistry and cultivation strategies.
It’s difficult to predict what products will enjoy success on the arable farm of the future, but there are other sectors where they are making considerable in-roads such as horticulture, and by 2027 we may well be seeing that in arable too,” he says.
While Rothamsted Research has declared its intention of moving the UK’s average wheat yield from the current 8.4 tonnes per hectare to 20t/ha over a 20-year period, one Agrii client has proved a yield of nearly double the average is possible even today.
In 2015 Northumberland grower Rod Smith achieved a new world record wheat yield of 16.52t/ha. Ms Bend says: “Admittedly the weather was conducive to yield, with higher than usual levels of solar radiation and a longer grain fill period.
The crop was never under stress and the field was a fertile clay benefiting from a previous crop of beans. “However, collaboration, involving a close partnership between our agronomist and the committed farm team, was crucial to putting the R&D into practice, and achieving the final result.”
The winning formula consisted of:
Agrii variety, Dickens, which was well trialled and its strengths and weaknesses understood
“As well as a high level of collaboration and planning,” says Ms Bend, “this record yield was a result of the right level of integrated agronomy innovation, based on up-to-date evidence.
Other important factors were the right weather, a variety with yield potentials where the weaknesses – in this case septoria – can be managed, the right soil with an absence of constrictions to yield, and the right level of investment.
“In 10 years’ time, we will undoubtedly have other tools in our armoury including better data, and greater precision, but getting all of the above factors right will still remain vital if we are to challenge the 20t barrier.
“Although this record has just been broken by an irrigated crop in NZ, this yield remains a record in the Northern Hemisphere and in an unirrigated crop.”