Having already produced one award-winning crop of winter wheat, can one North East grower achieve back to back victories?
After winning the 2016 Yield Enhancement Network (YEN) wheat competition on his first attempt, North East farmer Shaun Watson is hoping for more of the same with this year’s crop of Graham.
His previous entry, a crop of Reflection, achieved 12.8 tonnes per hectare (5.2t/acre), outyielding the next best entry by 0.3t/ha (0.1t/acre) on what was a year of lacklustre crop performances across much of the country.
Mr Watson picked up gold awards for best field yield and best percentage of total yield, having achieved 64 per cent of the crops 20t/ha (8t/acre) yield potential.
See also: OSR Yield Enhancement Network launched
While weather data shows the farm, north of Newcastle, received more sunshine than many other part of the UK, Mr Watson believes the use of soil mapping, variable rate fertiliser and seed applications, plus a ‘little and often’ approach to nitrogen applications, led to his winning yield.
This ensured the crop entered spring with an expansive root network and high biomass, something which YEN adjudicators believe was a decisive factor in his victory. Grain samples suggested the crop yield was largely driven by a high grain number as opposed to grain size, averaging about 57 grains per ear.
Compost, sewage sludge and farmyard manure is outsourced and regularly applied across 80 per cent of the farm and the award-winning field was no exception, having received a combination of all three inputs for the last seven years.
To correct any variability in the natural inputs being applied, Mr Watson uses variable rate nitrogen, P and K.
He says: “I cannot speak more highly of the sewage sludge, it is full of phosphate and is great for setting the seeds away.”
He finds compost is particularly beneficial on some of his heavier land.
“Compost is good when you have clay land as it helps break up soil and helps the water filtrate, but it is also high in potash, so if you can alternate between sewage sludge and compost you can get your indices up without having to apply too much artificial fertiliser.”
As a result, the farm’s overall use of artificial P and K has dropped, while nitrogen use has remained the same.
“While we are putting a lot of organic nitrogen onto our soils, as our yields are going up at the same time we are actually using the same amount of artificial nitrogen, but we are getting better output.”
Last year’s crop received a total of 290kg N/ha, split into 10 applications, all of which were applied at variable rates based on satellite imagery data. He believes the little and often approach set his YEN field apart from the farm’s other wheat crops, which averaged about 11t/ha (4.5t/acre). He plans to repeat this strategy for this year’s crop, however, he says the introduction of variable rate sowing has had the biggest impact on crop performance.
“I think it is more important than the fertiliser because if you’re just sowing at a flat rate, any wet areas just become a bare patch like it always does. Your fertiliser spreader will put more on, even though there is no seed there.
“By using historical maps we can make sure the headland, any heavier soils or wet patches are sown at a higher seed rate and we are finding we are getting a much more even crop as a result.”
To reduce weed pressure and spread organic matter through the soil profile, Mr Watson chooses to plough his entire acreage. Most land is subsoiled ahead of ploughing and everything is pressed, drilled and rolled.
The winning crop of Reflection was sown on September 13, a bit later than most of the farm’s crops in order to reduce the threat of yellow rust getting into the crop early. The seed rate ranged from 175-200kg/ha.
“We are usually a bit earlier, for example we often sow Claire in August, but with Reflection we did not want to sow it too early for disease. Even sowing it when we did, it was perhaps still a bit early, but it established well and rooted well too.”
While last year’s crop received a single application of potash in March, after collaborating with other YEN entrants, this year he has decided to split his potash application in three; one in February, one in April and one in May, to help keep the crop clean.
Despite being known for its susceptibility to yellow rust, Mr Watson says the crop looked good from the start and disease was minimised with a robust fungicide programme, including the use of two SDHIs.
Keen to keep leaves clean from the start, a 1.2 litre/ha dose of Aviator (bixafen+prothioconazole) followed a Cherokee (chlorothalonil+cyproconazole+propiconazole) application at T0. Seed was also treated with Redigo Deter (clothianidin).
Agronomist Suzanne Horn says: “We managed to stay on top of disease throughout the season. But we needed a robust rate of Aviator and CTL at T1, a 0.3 litre/ha dose of Comet with Adexar at T2, and a one-litre/ha dose of Firefly at T3.”
The inclusion of fluxastrobin improved rust control but also helped preserve green leaf area, according to Miss Horn, which meant the crop’s grain fill period fell outside the spell of particularly dull weather in early June.
Tissue testing highlighted a slight manganese deficiency, which was rectified at T1. However, grain sampled post-harvest showes a deficiency in copper so this year’s plot has had copper applied in the autumn.
Three PGR applications were made to check apical growth and to reduce the threat of lodging given the quantity of nitrogen applied. With no black-grass to worry about, three herbicide applications were sufficient to reduce weed competition.
Overall, Mr Watson’s total chemical spend amounted to about £245/ha (£99/acre) and his fertiliser spend came to £208/ha (£84/acre), which he suspects will be similar for this year’s YEN crop.
Mr Watson says the crop of Graham he has entered for this season’s YEN competition is so far on par with last year. However, it is in need of some rain so the nitrogen which has been applied can be made available to the plant.
He says: “If the lack of rain is prolonged it is going to impact on crop yield. At the moment, we have not dropped any tillers and the roots are scavenging.
“If you dig down with a spade there is moisture there, so I am not worrying too much at the moment, but a good day’s rain would certainly help replenish soils.
“I certainly think I could achieve what I did last year yield-wise, it just depends what everyone else does. I would hate to think we could go backwards but if this dry spell carries on, then there is a chance it could happen,” he adds.
The Yield Enhancement Network (YEN) is designed to encourage competition between growers who are striving to achieve better yields and help them understand what is limiting them.
In doing so, YEN adjudicators consider the yield potential of the season and compare it to the actual yield achieved.
To do this, assessments are made on the development of a given crop, the availability of light, water and nutrients, and its success in capturing these and using them to form grain.
Membership of the network offers the opportunity to benchmark crop performance against all other entrants. Awards are available for the top three entrants for yield and percentage of potential yield.
For more information visit: www.yen.adas.co.uk/