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  1. In order to optimise gross margins growers should fully understand their soil health status by surveying key indicators such as organic matter and microbial life, says leading agronomy firm Hutchinsons, and is encouraging growers to take advantage of a free sampling service currently on offer.
    Soil health is a key asset for our ability to grow high yielding, quality crops. However over the last few decades, farm practices have resulted in a decline in diversity of both cropping and cultivation techniques. This, in turn, has caused a significant deterioration of soil health and resilience, which will continue to have a negative impact on yields if we do not address it, says Hutchinsons agronomist Ed Brown.

    ed brown

    “There are huge benefits to be gained from taking a more holistic approach to crop production, and if we are to continue to push for higher yields, we need to address our biggest asset, the soil, as part of our broader crop management.”

    In order to encourage growers to fully understand the condition of their soils, Hutchinsons will be conducting a free survey of soil health that is available to 100 growers across the west midlands.

    geoffrey bastard

    “This will involve a member of the Hutchinsons team taking samples from fields, which will then be tested for organic matter, pH, P, K, Mg, Sulphur and trace element levels, as well as cation exchange capacity and soil texture classification. We will also carry out a worm count and visual soil assessment,” adds Geoff Bastard of Hutchinsons, who is also carrying out the survey work.

    “Tests for organic matter and microbial life are important as they are key indicators of soil health. Organic matter, amongst other things, determines the nutrient and water holding capacity of the soil and is an important factor in soil structure; it is also the main feed source for microbial life and micro-organisms.”

    “Earthworms are also a very good indicator of soil health and they play a beneficial role in the environment.”

    Each farmer will receive their own copy of their individual results and will also be invited to a breakfast meeting where we will present the results for the region. Dick Neale, Hutchinsons technical manager, will be at the meeting and will discuss the results, identifying the detrimental impact that some practices are having on soil health. Most importantly Mr Neale will be advising on the best ways to enhance and improve the health of our soils.

    For growers in north Shropshire, south Cheshire, and the Welsh Borders contact Geoff Bastard on mobile: 07423 467879 or if you are in the mid-north Shropshire or south Staffordshire areas contact Ed Brown on mobile: 07583 019273.

    Hutchinsons technical manager Dick Neale, has recently created a short series of videos examining the cultivation effects on soil structure at The National Blackgrass Centre, Brampton, Cambridgeshire. The videos also demonstrate oilseed rape establishment with the Micro-Wing technique and the successful use of winter cover crops for weed control, soil conditioning and improving soil nutrition to benefit following crop establishment. To watch these videos please go to www.hlhltd.co.uk

  2. Oilseed Rape is frequently called the “banker crop” on most arable farms, and is probably the best autumn-planted rotational break crop and entry for 1st wheats. The un-known is what its actual value might be when the crop is marketed says Colin Button, Hutchinsons seed manager, as he examines the place and importance of OSR as a crop option for UK farmers this autumn.

    “This time last year, the price indicators showed wheat around £140/t and oilseed rape hovering in the low £200’s. In the face of the low potential returns and the anticipated establishment difficulties from Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle (CSFB) attack, many growers have decided to reduce the rape area they planted,” he says.

    The AHDB autumn 2015 planted area survey figures now shows a reduction in planted rape area of 10% to 548,000Ha (vs 2015 harvest area of 611,000Ha).

    colin button believes now could be the right time to look ahead to harvest

    “What we now know is that wheat prices have fallen dramatically and there has been an improvement in rapeseed values which, when added to oil bonuses, makes the OSR crop look much more attractive than could have been anticipated a year ago.”

    “In fact OSR is approaching 2.5 times the value of wheat - a rule of thumb which was always said to govern where the crop price should be to justify its place in a farm’s crop rotation.”

    Viewing crop choices~

    Mr Button feels that with this change of crop values, now could be the right time to look ahead to harvest 2017 and put OSR back in place as the key autumn-planted rotational crop. The establishment challenges remain, especially in the CSFB hot-spots.

    “However, away from these specific areas, if given close attention to best practice over soil management pre-drilling, soil moisture preservation and a little luck, it is possible for the majority of the national crop to be successfully established.”

    The potential gross margin returns for OSR give a clear picture of where winter OSR sits, alongside the other options (all figures based on likely crop values for 2017 harvest from information taken in early March 2016).
     
    gross margin comparison for harvest 2017

    Conventional or Hybrid?

    Once the decision is made to grow the crop, the question which follows is “Which varieties would be my best option? Should I go for a conventional type, or opt to choose a hybrid?

    There are very good reasons to consider both, adds Mr Button. He points out that the yield potential of conventional varieties has kept pace with hybrids in the AHDB Recommended List year on year. But he suggests looking into the establishment criteria and there are several varieties which are clear leaders and arise from within both types.

    “Vigour through the germination and establishment phases can make all the difference. In our own RTC site observations, the hybrids Incentive, Wembley, SY-Harnas, Fencer and Harper have stood out particularly. Indeed Fencer has shown to be the most vigorous, whether sown early or late (second week of September).”

    “The conventional varieties Campus and Elgar have also shown good vigour. Campus in particular, is the outstanding variety and is in fact the widest grown conventional variety planted for harvest 2016 - a testament to the faith that growers had in their choice for the year’s crop in the face of the establishment uncertainties. Its verticillium wilt tolerance, as tested in the breeder’s trials, also makes the variety a continued stable, reliable choice.”
    “We should recognise that Elgar tops the new list and is, with its ratings for gross output, lodging, oil and disease scores a potentially choice variety. Sitting alongside a proven variety like Campus, it will be one to consider growing. “

    “Although the 2015 Recommended List pushed Elgar to the front, it has previously seen some variability in performance – I would advise some caution before making major changes in variety selections.”

    Care with seed rates

    Mr Button adds that an additional consideration in the choice between hybrids and conventional varieties is their seed rate for successful establishment. “The hybrids normally require approximately 1.5 million seeds for 3 ha’s (around 50 seeds/m2) versus the 4 million seed packs of conventional types (>100 seeds/m2).”

    “On the face of it, the conventional type and higher seed rates will provide more seed and therefore a denser plant-stand in the field. The conventional seed rates, perhaps, could be pushed a little further from 4 ha’s to drill across 5 ha’s. However, it would be wise not to gamble and risk variable establishment, especially if conditions immediately after drilling become dry or CSFB attacks deplete the crop stand. “

  3. Don’t make assumptions on N min levels as findings from preliminary soil nitrogen measurements suggest many farms could be under fertilising their crops once again this season, whilst in other circumstances the optimum nitrogen could be much lower than expected, warns leading agronomy firm Hutchinsons.

    From over 450 N-Min samples taken by Hutchinsons agronomists this spring, there is no doubt that we are seeing some interesting results, says Tim Kerr, Nutrition Manager for Hutchinsons.

    The N-Min service measures the amount of nitrogen that the crop can expect to get from the soil over the entire growing season, including soil mineral nitrogen and, importantly, the additionally available nitrogen which will mineralise from the soil.

    “In clay soils we would usually expect to see results after winter cereals to closely reflect the recommendations in RB209, and results show that in the west this is true. However it’s certainly not the case in the East Midlands where the results are higher than expected, which we would put down to the higher mineralisation of nitrogen over the exceptionally mild winter.”

    tim kerr of hutchinsons

    Mr Kerr points out that in soils where the previous crops were beans or potatoes, soils have between 15-25% less mineral nitrogen available than RB209 suggests, adding that a similar pattern is appearing on light land as well.

    “Interestingly on soils following spring cereals, we would expect the SNS to be the very similar to soils following winter cereals. This year there seems to be a much bigger discrepancy, with soil mineral nitrogen levels following spring cereals showing much lower levels than RB209 predicts. This is showing up in regions from Kent to Lancashire.”

    “Armed with the detail that N-Min testing provides, growers are in a much better position to decide on the optimum levels of nitrogen throughout the rotation, which will improve overall crop performance, which at current market prices, has never been more important.”

    Farmacy agronomist Rob Jack, who advises growers across Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, is seeing a similar picture across many of the fields that he has sampled.  “Making sure that we are responding to the correct levels of residual N rather than assuming where soil mineral nitrogen levels should be, brings two important benefits as it avoids under fertilising soils and limiting yield where residual nitrogen is low and where relevant, prevents wasting a valuable and expensive input if it’s not actually needed.“

    “On the chalky soils of Cambridgeshire we have found that by taking N-Min samples, we have avoided underfeeding our first wheats; N-Min levels in first wheats are lower than we would have expected, considering it is following a break crop, so first wheats are getting higher than normal rates of nitrogen, which in some cases are closer to those that will be applied to second wheats.”

    “It’s a similar scenario in Suffolk, although levels are generally lower by 10-15kgs N/ha compared to the chalk, but we are often finding that we will need to feed first wheats as much as second wheats.”

    “The winter in East Anglia has been warmer but not necessarily much wetter than normal. We have not seen the huge downpours that the north and west of the UK have had. This may explain why residual nitrogen levels are not as low as we would have first thought and are broadly similar to last year.”

    Mr Jack believes that there is also a real value in growers being able to compare their individual N-Min results with regional results of similar soil type, and this is an important service to individual growers as part of the company’s Omnia Nutrition package which includes N min sampling.

    “We encourage growers in a locality to confidentially pool their N-Min results, as this provides them with a snap shot of what is happening with similar soils in the region and gives context for their own individual results, which is really important. Of course this is most effective when used within a tight geographical base.”

    “It also means that samples do not need to be taken in every crop in the rotation – in essence you are paying for one test but getting the pooled information from 7 or 8.

    For Adam Rayner of David Rayner Farms, who grows over a 1000ha of arable crops in south Cambridgeshire, N-Min sampling on his own soils is very valuable, and even more so when he can compare his results with those in the region.

    “It’s surprising what the results can show up, so it’s important to be able to get an overview of the consolidated results in the area.  We have found that nitrogen levels in second wheats are higher than we thought, and lower after break crops. By comparing this against similar soil types within the region we know that it is not an anomaly on our particular fields.”


  4. Rapidly advancing crop growth after a relatively slow start this spring could concertina fungicide timings and extra care must be taken to avoid missing key growth stages, leading agronomy firm Hutchinsons warns.

    While advanced wheat has already reached the T0 fungicide timing (growth stage 30-31) in many regions, some crops, particularly those drilled late on heavy land, are less well developed at nearer GS 25-26 and only just starting to get going at the time of writing.

    Crops will catch up quickly as day length and temperature increases though, which could result in relatively short gaps between the early spray applications, the firm’s northern regional technical manager Cam Murray says.

    “Last season was a slow burn in terms of crop growth and this season has been even more so. But things are picking up quickly, so spray windows could get quite tight as crops race through growth stages. It is vital growers apply fungicides at the right growth stage, regardless of how long it is since the last spray.”

    But wet ground conditions and a changeable weather forecast threaten to further disrupt spray windows, he adds.
    “Most wheat in northern England and Scotland will reach the T0 fungicide timing next week (w/c 11 April), but at the moment it’s questionable whether many growers will be able to get on the land.”

    The growth stage 32 (T1) spray timing is typically three weeks after T0, putting it around late-April in many areas, but this spray interval may be narrower if the T0 is delayed.

    Septoria Pressure Still High

    Septoria tritici pressure at the base of crops remains high given the relatively mild and wet winter so any compromise to early control could prove costly, says technical development director David Ellerton.

    take a protectant approach to keeping diseases such as septoria tritici und

    “Fungicides don’t have as strong a curative ability on Septoria as in the past so growers have got to try and keep in a protectant situation by getting on top of disease early and keeping spray windows tight throughout. Ideally the gap between sprays shouldn’t extend beyond three weeks if possible; the longer the delay, the more curative action will be needed.

    “Septoria is the dominant disease and even varieties with a good resistance rating of six can still be badly affected, so don’t compromise fungicide timing.”

    Rust and mildew were rampant earlier in the season, but Dr Ellerton says incidence appears to have been dampened down by the spell of colder weather last month. Any remaining disease should be relatively easy to control by tweaking product choice at the T0 or T1 timing.

    Tailor Product Choice

    Mr Murray advises growers to tailor fungicide choice to the strengths and weaknesses of individual varieties and treat each crop on its own merit rather than taking a blanket approach at the main fungicide timings.

    “It might be a bit more difficult for growers with large areas to cover to keep adjusting mixes and rates, but it is a far more effective way of reducing costs than just cutting rates across an entire area, which could compromise disease control.”

    any compromise to early control could prove costly says david ellerton of h

    Early use of a multi-site protectant, such as chlorothalonil or folpet, at T0 and T1 should form the foundation of any spray programme, with additional chemistry choice tailored according to variety characteristics and rotational position, Dr Ellerton advises.

    If the T0 has been compromised in any way and curative control is required both experts agree it is worth using an SDHI at T1 to bring disease back under control, however where pressure is lower there may be scope to use a more cost-effective triazole mix instead.

    “Where margins are tight there might also be leeway to save costs by reducing fungicide dose under low disease pressure situations on less susceptible varieties, but don’t go below 70% of full label dose for triazoles or below 50% dose with SDHIs,” Dr Ellerton continues.

    “There’s no sense putting the entire spray programme at risk by trying to save a few pounds. As soon as you start compromising sprays and timings it puts more pressure and cost on following sprays and risks not getting the control required.”

    Including a triazole or strobilurin at T1 is worthwhile if additional rust control is needed, while penthiopyrad is a good SDHI option that offers septoria and eyespot control as well as impacting on root development. Prothioconazole is also effective against eyespot, as well as fusarium, he notes.

    Fluoxastrobin or azoxystrobin at T1 are other options to consider where take-all risk is high, such as in second or third wheat situations, he adds.
    Dr Ellerton says T2 (growth stage 39) flag leaf fungicides should nearly always be based around an SDHI for the curative control offered, unless disease pressure is very low.

    That is echoed by Mr Murray, who says that while it may be possible to use cheaper chemistry at T0 or T1, there is nearly always a need for strong curative action by the time crops get to the T2 timing, so using an SDHI is worth the investment.

    “The flag leaf contributes 35-40% of final yield, so it’s vital to keep it as clean as possible.”

    There can be a physiological benefit on extended crop greening from early use of SDHIs and strobilurins, which may influence product choice but should not be the driving factor, Dr Ellerton adds.

    Barley Looks Good

    Winter barley appears to be faring well so far this season and although some rhynchosporium is present, earlier rust and mildew has abated leaving relatively low disease levels in most places.

    Most crops have received their T0 fungicide, with the T1 due in the next two to three weeks, says Mr Murray. “Flag leaf emergence is determined by day length as it is in other cereals, however winter barley has the potential to quickly race through growth stages as soon as the sun comes out. Even backward crops will soon catch up.”

    Early fungicide sprays are critical for maintaining tiller numbers in barley and Dr Ellerton says it is worth investing in an SDHI plus triazole, such as prothioconazole, at T1.