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  1. Hutchinsons are proud of the excellent specialist service they provide to fruit growers, but they are not resting on their laurels and continue to think ahead and outside the normal realms of agronomic advice by initiating and investing in a ground breaking 10 year project in top fruit, called HELIOS (Hutchinsons Enhanced Light Interception Orchard System). The project is based on the simple premise that the ultimate yield of apples is relative to how much light the tree can get, explains Rob Saunders, one of their specialist agronomists.

    Helios

    He explains that Hutchinsons are setting up from scratch two orchards of Gala, one in the West Midlands and one in Kent, where they will be trying to break through the theoretical yield barrier. In John Nix Farm Management Pocketbook 2017, the yields for dessert apples are reported to be between 25 and 50 t/ha and for culinary apples between 30 and 55t/ha. Growers have managed to exceed these figures but often at the expense of quality and consistency. “We have always thought there is a theoretical ceiling of 60 t/ha yield,” says Rob.  “But can we break through that ceiling? This is what we are aiming to do.”

    “We think it is may be feasible to achieve consistently higher crops of quality fruit if the tree is able to capture more sunlight. By redesigning the canopy and tree architecture, it should be possible to intercept more light which should mean higher yields. The Helios project has been set up to see if this theory can be proven. We are planting trees from different root stocks, thinking of different support systems and redesigning the way the trees grow so that less light is wasted by getting to the orchard floor. We have thought about more of a canopy in a simple horizontal plane with little depth ie flatter canopies more open to the light,” says Rob.

    The idea of Helios is to see how yields can be increased and how an orchard can be established more cost-effectively. The project is scheduled for ten years and growers will be invited to one of the sites to see for themselves how the project is progressing during that time.

    Hutchinsons are becoming renowned for developing ground breaking systems for growers. In arable crops and also now in fruit they have the Omnia Precision system which is a unique unrivalled precision farming system using Multi-Dimensional Data Analysis for whole field crop and nutritional planning system. “We are also developing the pioneering Fruit Vision system which counts and measures crop yield as it moves through the orchard. This system was sent to the Southern hemisphere this winter for further development and is now back in the UK for final configuration and testing,” reports Rob. He also points out that FruitVision imaging process is really the first step to automated picking.  “When finally developed to the standards we are looking for FruitVision could revolutionise fruit growing. With labour costs doubling every ten years, automated picking will be a huge step forward to more profitable fruit growing. Hutchinsons is looking and investing into the fundamentals of fruit growing, so that they can offer advanced developments to their grower customers.”

  2. Routine subsoiling could have a detrimental effect on long-term soil structure, so growers must ensure any cultivation decisions are based on sound science and identified need not habit or theory, leading agronomy firm Hutchinsons says.

    Although subsoiling can alleviate short-term drainage issues in the following crop, it should only be used to rectify identified compaction issues. Used routinely, as normally occurs with deep non- inversion tillage, it disrupts natural structuring and may exacerbate future drainage problems, technical manager Dick Neale warns.

    “Rapid passage of water through soil is not a natural process. Water should percolate through slowly and be stored in and between aggregates until needed.

    “Subsoiling allows water to quickly drain away from the surface through the large macro pores and fissures created by the leg, but this often sees fine sand and silt particles washed to the base of the work where they pack tightly to form a sedimentation pan.

    “This sedimentation can come back to haunt you in following seasons, usually in drought years when root growth is restricted from passing through this hard layer at depth.”

    Dick Neale says water should percolate through soil slowly. (Pic taken by N

    Mr Neale also questions the value of subsoiling tramlines if the following crop is to be drilled in the same direction as before, resulting in new tramlines over the same position. “It’s a waste of time and money and means machinery ends up travelling on what is likely to be the softest part of the field.”

    Wherever possible he says non-mechanical methods, such as cover cropping, traffic management and improvements to organic matter placement to encourage earthworms, should be employed to maintain soil structure through natural processes, thereby improving long-term structure, drainage and water-holding capacity.

    Know Your Soil

    Inspecting soil structure is key to deciding on the most appropriate cultivation and cropping strategy for individual fields and growers are encouraged to take advantage of the new Healthy Soils service from Hutchinsons to get an accurate measure of soil health (see below).

    There is also a timely opportunity now for farmers to do their own basic assessments of soil structure prior to cultivating land.

    “Normally soil is too dry to dig inspection holes at this time of year, but the wet summer means there is enough soil moisture to get a good idea of what structure really looks like and make the right decisions about what management is required,” says Mr Neale.

    It is an approach favoured by Hutchinsons agronomist Kieran Walsh in the Cotswolds who says test digs are an invaluable way of tailoring autumn cultivations, especially where there are big variations in soil type.

    Kieran Walsh (pic taken by Tim Scrivener)


    “It’s a great opportunity to identify the presence, extent and depth of any compaction, but also to evaluate other aspects like slug pressure for the following crop and general soil health. Simple things like looking at the number of worms, texture and smell of the soil can tell you a lot about what’s going on beneath the surface.

    In some situations there may be a genuine need for deeper cultivations, but in other cases shallow tillage, or even no cultivation may be more effective, which will also save time and money, he says.

    Factors such as weed burden add another layer of complexity to the decision-making process and can influence cultivation type, he adds. The presence of onion couch, for example, means tine cultivators should be used to pull up weeds and allow them to dry on the surface, whereas disc cultivators chop up the weed and can spread the problem.

    “Cultivation strategy is such an important aspect to discuss with your agronomist, especially after seasons like this one, which really highlight differences in soil types and any underlying issues that need addressing. Simple issues can have quite a big impact through the growing season,” Mr Walsh says.

    “Soil is the most precious resource we have on farms and I believe in-depth soil analysis is more vital now than at any time in the past.”

    Mr Walsh also reminds farmers to avoid the temptation to cultivate soils when conditions are too wet and to ensure cultivation equipment is set up correctly to maintain the working depth required.

    Healthy Soils

    Healthy Soils is a new service from Hutchinsons providing farmers with a bespoke report detailing many aspects of soil health.

    Soil tests are best conducted when there is a growing crop and adequate soil moisture, typically between October and April.

    Information contained in a soil audit includes:

    • Review of cropping and cultivation practices
    • Visual evaluation of soil structure through the profile, to 1m deep where possible
    • Infiltration test to identify structural issues
    • Soil health and texture assessment
    • Measure of earthworms within top 200mm
    • pH analysis at three depths: surface, 150mm and 300mm
    • Assessment of macro and micro nutrients
    • Yield potential assessment and identification of limiting factors using the Omnia service from Hutchinsons.


    Contact your local Hutchinsons agronomist or go to www.hlhltd.co.uk for more information.

  3. This season sees the launch of a competition to help sugar beet growers close the gap between the theoretical potential of crops and actual farm yields.

    The British Beet Research Organisation says UK yields up to 145t/ha have been achieved, around double the farm average.

    Yield potential varies considerably across farms and fields though, so the Beet Yield Competition, a joint initiative between BBRO, British Sugar, Hutchinsons and NFU, is looking for growers who maximise crop potential rather than produce the highest yield.

    Sugar Beet

    Some 32 growers are taking part and winners will be those achieving the highest percentage of theoretical yield potential for their chosen site. Baseline potential is assessed by BBRO using a beet growth model developed and validated against commercial crops over many seasons. This is based on a range of factors including location, soil type, drilling date, weather and variety. It is revised through the season to account for rainfall variations.

    The competition applies to whole fields of at least 2ha, including headlands.

    Four regional winners, one for each beet factory, will be announced after the 2017/18 campaign ends, from which an overall winner is selected.

    “The aim is to increase yields among participating growers and use findings to improve national crop performance,” says Hutchinsons root crop technical manager Darryl Shailes.

    “Many factors are beyond growers’ control, but there are things which can be managed relatively easily. Until you start measuring the theoretical yield potential of a site you can’t tell how close crops are to fulfilling it.”

    Hutchinsons Darryl Shailes

    As well as allowing comparisons of “actual” and “potential” farm yields and improving the understanding of how the gap between the two can be closed, the competition provides opportunity to use aggregate data to examine trends and relationships, says Dr Simon Bowen of BBRO.

    “We are integrating all the data on to a common platform provided by KisanHub. Crop development, yield, soil, weather, and rotational information will all be in one place to allow us to analyse the effects of different factors. The more data we collect the more powerful this analysis becomes.”

    *More growers are wanted for 2018/19. Contact your BS area manager or visit http://bbro.co.uk/our-news/2016/beet-yield-competition

    Refining Farm Practices

    A desire to check whether existing farm practices are as effective as possible and see if there are any areas for improvement prompted Velcourt’s Rougham Estate manager Simon Eddell to join the 2017 competition.

    The farm grows 110ha of beet in-house plus 24ha on a contract farming agreement, across a range of soil types from blowing sands to medium clay near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

    Mr Eddell is well aware rainfall and soil type have the biggest impact on yields, but is keen to identify any other limiting factors. “Any small gains can add up to make a big difference.”

    Yields average 75t/ha, but over 80t/ha has been achieved in good seasons and he is confident 90-95t/ha is possible with favourable conditions. “On our lighter land yield is driven by rainfall in July and August. There’s no irrigation, so without regular rain during this period crops really suffer.”

    A switch from plough-based establishment to non-inversion tillage (Sumo, power-harrow, drill) six years ago, combined with rye and vetch-based cover crops and regular organic matter additions has improved drought resilience though, Mr Eddell says.

    “It’s taken several years to see any benefit, but we noticed this spring drought ‘hot spots’ came in later than previously.

    “If the competition concludes rainfall and soil type are the limiting factors then I know I’m doing the most I can to get the best out of the crop. If there is something I can change, that will be employed across the beet area.”

    Driving Yields

    Many factors determine yields, but the biggest – apart from rainfall -is rapid establishment, Mr Shailes says.

    “Crops need to get to 100% canopy cover as quickly as possible to intercept light and build sugars over the main summer growing period.”

    Key areas to focus on include:

    •    Soil management and seedbed preparation
    •    Early nitrogen – 30-40kg N/ha at drilling and remainder at full emergence
    •    Weed control – robust control, avoid crop damage
    •    Fungicides – budget at least one maybe two sprays
    •    Control pests, particularly beet leaf miner
    •    Tailor variety to soil type, disease risk, nematode threat, etc.
    •    Beware increased beet cyst nematode incidence where growing oilseed rape in the rotation.

  4. Cereal crops across the country are at higher risk of barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV) infection this autumn so every effort must be taken to mitigate any impact.

    The threat follows a mild season just gone, which resulted in considerable winged aphid activity and widespread reports of BYDV infection in spring crops particularly, but not exclusively, across northern and western regions.

    Furthermore, recent wet weather combined with generally milder conditions in southeast England is allowing a good flush of cereal volunteers and grass weeds that creates a “green bridge” for aphids to migrate into, and subsequently infect, newly emerging crops this autumn, warns Kent and Sussex-based Hutchinsons agronomist Elle Pace.

    Elle Pace

    “Aphids are around so growers have got to be vigilant and control any green bridge with cultivations or by spraying off with glyphosate. Cereal volunteers are the main food source for aphids, but any new green plant growth can help them colonise.”

    The two key species responsible for BYDV transmission are the grain aphid and bird cherry-oat aphid.


    Strong Case for Seed Treatment

    Crops can be infected with BYDV from emergence through to growth stage 31, so the most effective way to protect early growth is to use a clothianidin-based seed treatment (as in Deter), Hutchinsons technical director Dave Ellerton says.

    “I’d do this as routine for any early-sown winter crops this year.”

    Deter typically provides six to eight weeks protection, after which time he says a follow-up pyrethroid can be applied if required, depending on weather and aphid activity.

    Ms Pace says many growers have learnt from recent high-pressure BYDV years such as 2015 and are generally better prepared to manage the risk by using a seed treatment and well-timed follow-up pyrethroid spray.

    The move to later drilling for black-grass control across many parts of the southeast has also helped mitigate BYDV risk, which is greater in early-sown winter crops, she says.

    Fellow Hutchinsons agronomist Andrew Goodinson adds that although seed treatment can be perceived as an additional expense compared with just a pyrethroid, it is worthwhile, especially in areas where other crop harvests, such as potato and apple, increase autumn workloads, making it tricky to spray.

    “The seed treatment also offers a deterrent to slugs, which is an added advantage within certain rotations.”

    He also recommends Deter as a routine baseline protection on all winter barley and oats, plus on any wheat sown after oats, rape or grass, with a follow-up pyrethroid spray as required.

    Mr Goodinson reminds growers the duration of protection afforded by Deter reduces when sowing at lower seed rates, as less total active ingredient is applied. For example, reducing seed rates from 180kg/ha to 120kg/ha typically results in two weeks less persistence, which must be considered when timing follow-up treatments, he says.


    Consider Drilling Date

    Early-sown winter crops are at greatest risk from BYDV infection, so drilling later after the main aphid migration period during September and October could help reduce the threat.

    However this is not always practical and Dr Ellerton cautions against using BYDV risk to determine drilling date. “I’d always go by other factors such as take-all or black-grass pressure to set drilling date, then consider what that means for BYDV risk and use the most appropriate controls for that situation.”

    There is a clearer benefit from adjusting drilling date in spring crops, where earlier drilling allows crops to get established ahead of the main spring aphid migration, says Hutchinsons northern regional technical manager Cam Murray.

    “BYDV is a persistent virus that is very hard to control in spring crops where you don’t have the natural break in aphid activity you usually get over winter. Earlier drilling is one of the best control options.”

    He reminds growers that pyrethroid resistance has been found in grain aphids, reinforcing the need to adopt integrated chemical and cultural controls.

    If grain aphids are present, Dr Ellerton says pyrethroids still offer worthwhile efficacy, but he recommends using a high dose of a stronger active ingredient such as lambda-cyhalothrin.

    Tips for Managing BYDV

    • Delay sowing autumn crops to emerge after main aphid migration
    • Use a clothianidin seed treatment as baseline protection in winter crops
    • Follow up with pyrethroid if required
    • Monitor aphid pressure closely – see https://cereals.ahdb.org.uk/monitoring/aphid-news/aphid-monitoring.aspx
    • Remove any “green bridge” for aphids e.g. grassweeds or volunteers in stubbles
    • Drill spring crops earlier to outgrow any damage from spring aphid migration in April/ May
    • Consider beetle banks to increase natural predators (e.g. ground beetles, parasitoids, spiders).