The greatest possible day-to-day flexibility in every aspect of OSR growing is the focus for manager, Frazer Jolly and Farmacy agronomist, Sally Morris at Saltby Farms on the north eastern edge of Leics between Melton Mowbray and Grantham; a flexibility that means one 40ha field was sown partly from a Sumo Trio and partly with a Vaderstad Rapid drill last autumn to deal with see-sawing weather conditions.
“Between us, Gary Wallace and I do all the fieldwork for our 800ha of cropping,” says Fraser who took up the management reins two years ago. “The one thing Gary’s sick of hearing me say over the phone when he’s sowing our 250-plus ha of OSR is ‘if it’s not right, stop’.
“In my experience, carrying on regardless is the road to disaster. Instead, we need to make the call on the day. The crop is an important part of our business, so we can’t afford to get it wrong by being insufficiently flexible in managing it; especially if we're to push performance to the consistent 4.5t/ha average we want."
Growing OSR every other year as the business has been doing for a while, like many in the crop's East Mids heartland, means yields remain stubbornly below the 4t/ha mark. Even so, at 46% oil last season on a premium LEAF contract and with tight cost control, it continues to generate perfectly acceptable margins alongside top quality milling wheat on the farm's heavy clay to limestone brash ground.
"Actually, we're amazed the OSR has been delivering anywhere near 4t/ha with the rotation as close as it is - and, so far, without any clubroot problems," observes Frazer.
Areas for Improvement
While there are opportunities to extend the rotation, Frazer and Sally are looking to improve a number of areas of OSR management at Saltby Farms - from variety choice and establishment through nutrition and disease control to harvest management. In all these respects, flexibility is their key imperative.
Keeping their eggs in more than one basket is important as far as OSR genetics is concerned. They currently have four different varieties in the ground - two hybrids and two conventional varieties - aiming to match them to the particular needs of their land increasingly closely.
'We need varieties that are consistently good year after year, not just one-year wonders," stresses Sally. "So the sort of disease resistance, fast autumn development and shatter resistance carried by varieties like DK Extrovert are as important in our choice as gross output ratings. These strengths allow us to get a decent crop even when the weather gets in the way of our best-laid plans.
"Alongside earlier sowing wherever possible, the main thing we're working hard on is the consistency with which we're able to sow our seed just below the surface into moisture with the best seed-to-soil contact regardless of the conditions. "
At the moment, the team is maintaining it’s flexibility with parallel establishment systems that can be switched at a moment's notice. Given the area of OSR to be drilled and the shortage of time after wheat harvesting, a single Sumo Trio pass with the discs just tickling the surface, sowing slightly to one side of the legs to prevent too much seed going in too deep, is the preferred approach.
Run right behind the combine, this is a very rapid and economic regime and highly effective when conditions are right. When the weather turns as wet then hot as it did last autumn, though, the system's lack of sowing depth consistency becomes all too apparent in large amounts of seed being held up in the straw mulch, germinating within it and failing to establish.
Under these circumstances, Frazer has found the farms main Väderstad Rapid drill - with every other coulter blocked-off to give similar 50cm sowing bands - gives much better seed placement, drilling into previously Trio'd ground.
"An extra pass isn’t ideal given our time constraints, but it’s worth it to get the even establishment we need," he says.
"With rolling every bit as crucial - not least in minimising slug and flea beetle problems - we stop drilling too whenever conditions mean we can’t roll immediately afterwards and only start again when we know we'll be able to roll."
All the Saltby Farms OSR goes in at between 50-60 seeds/m2 with the seed rate varied manually to conditions in each part of the field. The same manually varied approach goes for slug pelleting, which ensures they only use the inputs they need where and when they need them.
"Strong disease resistance in our varieties means our single autumn fungicide spray - in early-mid Nov, depending on conditions - tends to be tebuconazole, with a bit of prothioconazole included for varieties with lower LLS resistance than we'd like," says Sally.
"We're equally flexible in the timing of our stem extension spraying, incubating leaves regularly to make sure we can keep ahead of any LLS development."
Leaf tissue testing in both the autumn and spring ensures any nutrients the crops are short of - mainly boron and molybdenum - are included with the sprays whenever they're needed.
Looking to push the crop a little harder, Frazer and Sally are putting a greater management focus on the period from flowering to harvest as they see that as a key area for improvement alongside establishment. In particular, they're intent on keeping the canopy as green and efficient for as long as possible through more even flowering, stay-green chemistry and better all-round nutrition.
They see leaving their OSR as long as possible before going in with the glyphosate as another good opportunity to gain both yield and oil content.
"As well as flexibility we're pretty good at patience here," concludes Frazer. "With so much of the yield coming from the lower pods these days we're never in any hurry to desiccate. And last year we didn't need to spray one block at all. So this is another area in which we're keeping up the closest monitoring so we can make the call on the day."