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Yield is king in New Zealand too, so what can we learn?

In the second and final instalment of our report on the BASF Innovation Tour to New Zealand, we take a look at fertiliser and fungicide inputs.

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The climate and soils in New Zealand may be more favourable for growing cereal crops than those in the UK, but the agronomic practices and research findings are very similar to those adopted by the 15-strong UK farmer group who attended a BASF Innovation Tour to the country in December last year. However, it was the points of difference that piqued the interest of Ben Freer, one of the BASF team on the trip.


He says: “I had the impression all New Zealand’s arable farmers are growing very high-yielding crops; this certainly isn’t the case, however, on farms where yields are consistently beating UK production. I was fascinated to find out why.”


Formerly part of the NIAB TAG team, Mr Freer is good at pulling apart what delivers the differences. “We met seven cereal growers, including Eric Watson whom I first met when he visited Morley 15 years ago. Eric took the wheat yield world record in 2017 with a yield of 16.79 tonnes per hectare from a crop of Oakley. Another farmer, Craig Whiteside, routinely achieves yields of 15t/ha and Mike Solari, whose budgeted yield is 14t/ha, often sees yields of 15-16t/ha.”

 

Mr Freer identified the areas that are likely to offer part of the explanation – long grain fill, the option to irrigate and high inputs of fertiliser and fungicides to maximise green leaf duration.


“Grain fill is a big part of their success. It is both long and benign and, coupled with this, they have access to water, with many able to cost-effectively irrigate if soil moisture drops below their trigger points. Also, they apply pretty handsome fungicide programmes, with many applying five sprays, including some T0s and many applying T4s. Their argument for a fifth spray is that it ensures green leaf area is maintained for as long as possible.”


As in the UK, some of the high yield New Zealand farmers felt there was merit in including livestock in the rotation and used precision agriculture to target inputs and accurately manage seed rates.


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Case study: Eric Watson

Case study: Eric Watson

Eric Watson was hailed the world wheat yield record holder in 2017 and some of the UK farmers met him during the BASF tour of New Zealand. BASF’s Colin Mountford-
Smith, who hosted the tour, says: “Staggeringly, from a seed rate of just 65kg per hectare, he yielded 16.791 tonnes/ha from his crop of Oakley when he took the title.
“He also said his yield mapping recorded areas achieving the elusive 20t/ha, which is incredible.”

 

Mr Watson’s record crop was sown on April 7 (equivalent to October 7 in the UK) in very good sowing conditions and was in the ground for 10.5 months, so the harvest was around mid-March (mid-September in the UK). "Like many of the high yielding wheat growers in New Zealand’s South Island, Mr Watson follows a long and, as he describes, flexible rotation which includes grass leys,” he adds.


“His cropping includes grass seed, some for six years [red fescue and timothy], vegetable seed, alternate pasture, chicory – which has a good root structure, apparently – and plantain. Importantly for achieving high yields, 490ha of his farm is fully irrigated and received a five-spray fungicide programme,” says Mr Mountford-Smith.


Mr Watson carries out deep N soil sampling and applies 285kg/ha of nitrogen, plus P&K and trace elements. “His use of technology is fundamental to his approach, including neutron probes for soil moisture, yield mapping and fortnightly trace element tests. This attention to detail is key. “What really stuck with us was he said every day he can keep leaves green delivers another 200kg of yield,” adds Mr Mountford-Smith.

Nutrition and soils are key

Stuart Kirkwood runs his family farm in East Yorkshire, a 316-hectare unit cropping winter wheat, winter/spring barley, winter oilseed rape and vining peas. The farm is spread over a five mile radius and has recently installed a new 1,000-tonne grain store, making room for bed and breakfast pigs in another building.


Mr Kirkwood says what really stood out for him from the tour was the high-input, high-output approach to cereal production. “The arable growers we visited round the Canterbury Plains have adopted high input, high output systems, with some achieving 15t/hectare for wheat and 12t/ha for barley.

 

“At home, if we have a cereal crop with potential we can push, we will do so. My target is 15t/ha, I’ve achieved this before so, if we can justify applying that extra N, I will
as long as it stays within the regulations, as we are in an Nitrate Vulnerable Zone.”


Graham Thompson, who farms arable and pigs in Suffolk with his wife Alice, has 450ha of heavy arable land and indoor pigs. The Thompsons grow wheat, barley, grass and oilseed rape, all for the seed market.


He says: “The climate and the soil are second to none in New Zealand and in the drier parts they are all set up for irrigation. “I don’t think the yields we are getting on this farm for OSR, barley and grass seed are a million miles away from those we saw in New Zealand, while for wheat there is room for improvement, climate and soil permitting.

 

“I came back thinking nutrition plays an important part in yields. We need to improve our soils in the UK and understand how to make these nutrients available to the plant without destroying the soil.”

 

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