As we enter the late autumn drilling period, Dominic Kilburn catches up with two East Anglian growers
As we enter the late autumn drilling period, Dominic Kilburn catches up with two East Anglian growers who reckon they have the answer to the perpetual challenge that many farms in the region have of juggling root crop harvest with late drilling of cereals. Suffolk and Norfolk farm manager Kevin Hayhoe makes no bones about it; he’s in the business of filling barns with feed wheats – whatever the weather, whatever the season – that’s his priority.However with sugar beet forming a key part of the farms’ rotations, flexibility with late drilled cereals is not just important – it’s vital – if current success in delivering wheat yields is to continue, he maintains.Kevin manages over 809ha (2,000 acres) at Genevieve Farms on behalf of the Stennett family, based at Ingham, just north of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. The total acreage also includes land at Felthorpe, near Norwich in Norfolk which, although managed by Kevin, is largely farmed with the aid of a contractor for ease of logistics.Winter wheat, oilseed rape and sugar beet form a large percentage of the rotation on both farms where the majority of soils are relatively light with outlying areas of “good, heavy land”.In all, 364ha (900 acres) of wheat are grown; Group 4 winter varieties including Santiago, Kielder and Leeds for the main autumn drilling window, and Conqueror occupying a slightly later drilling slot. Leeds, points out Kevin, was the top performing variety across both farms this year where, overall, winter wheat yields averaged 9.6t/ha.Another winter wheat variety; soft feed Solo, is grown for GB Seeds (a division of Agrii); a business based close by at Ingham which has developed specialist markets for cereal, herbage and game cover seeds, pet and bird feed. “Solo is a nice, bright and bold wheat and comes with a market for it literally down the road,” points out Kevin.As well as winter wheat the business has, for the past three years, been growing spring wheat as part of a trials programme for wheat breeder KWS, as well as growing it as a commercial crop. Total spring wheat acreage across the farms is 110ha (270 acres) and, while a number of different varieties are represented in the trials, Group 4 hard feed variety KWS Alderon forms the bulk of the commercial acreage.According to Kevin, all harvested beet land in the autumn and winter goes into either winter wheat or, depending on timing of the harvest, spring wheat. “Beet lifting for us usually begins during the second week in October but because the business also operates a haulage company – Stennett’s Transport – I am always slightly at the mercy of when it’s our turn to have crop taken to the factories,” explains Kevin.“One thing’s for sure, we can’t just go ahead and lift our beet and take it to the factories when at the same time lots of our customers are waiting for haulage,” he stresses. Typically, 110ha of beet are lifted in Suffolk and 60ha (150 acres) in Norfolk and, in the worst case scenario, lifting can continue right up until the last week in the campaign. “In reality, though, we do our very best to get most of it out of the ground and into clamp before Christmas and this is where the spring wheat comes into play,” says Kevin.”I know that, come late November, when the last of the Conqueror goes in, I then have a very large drilling window for a spring variety like Alderon and this completely takes the pressure off if beet lifting is delayed, or the weather is against us, and we have to keep drilling wheat beyond Christmas.”He says that spring wheats averaged 8.2t/ha last harvest, across both farms, within a drilling window that began on 28th November 2013, and which finished on the 23rd March this year.”We drilled some Alderon on 15th December, on land nearby at Beyton in Suffolk, and we got 9.6t/ha. I don’t think we would have got anything like that from a winter wheat drilled at the same time,” he explains.”We also had side-by-side comparisons between Alderon, plus some other spring wheats in trials, and Conqueror drilled on 22nd November last year. The spring wheats yielded over 9.8t/ha and Conqueror 9.1t/ha.”Kevin says that, agronomically, spring wheats on the farm are treated similarly to their winter cousins; seedbeds are ploughed and pressed and then drilled with a power harrow/drill combination. Seed rates rise to 350-375 seeds/m2 as the season gets later and pre-Christmas-drilled crops will usually get 150kg N/ha at the end of February (compared with 180kg N/ha for winter varieties).”It seems to over-winter better than winter wheat and then, when the weather allows in the early spring, it’s up and away,” he adds.They are more forgiving in terms of timeliness of drilling, points out Kevin, adding that spring wheats are a huge benefit in terms of farm logistics and crop planning over the autumn period.Enhanced yields Further west, in Whittlesey, Cambridgshire, Philip Bradshaw of Philip Bradshaw (Farming) has been growing spring wheats “on and off” for the past 20 years, but his interest in the crop has been reinvigorated in recent years. “Spring wheat has always had a place on our farm for late drilling after root crops, but because of the catchier seasons we seem to get nowadays they are becoming more important in our rotation in terms of the extended drilling window they give us. “The modern varieties are also achieving enhanced yields, particularly so in a year like 2012,” he adds.Philip farms 220ha (540 acres) which includes a mixture of owned and tenanted land, and he is also part of a five-way collaboration which farms over 800ha (2,000 acres) in the area, principally to achieve machinery sharing efficiencies.Land is predominantly fen skirt and crops include wheat, oilseed rape, pulses, sugar beet and some potatoes.”Spring wheats give us that freedom of delaying drilling from November right the way through until the spring but it also brings a different disease resistance profile to the table compared with winter varieties, and that diversifies the risk,” explains Philip.”Wheat bulb fly is also becoming increasingly difficult to control but you do get more out of a seed dressing by drilling later, or drilling in the spring when most of the danger has passed,” he comments.Last season Philip grew KWS Willow, a high yielding Group 2 spring wheat variety which gained a modest premium, he says, however this season mostly Alderon will be grown for feed.”To an extent quality spring wheat can provide a premium over feed, and many years ago we used to grow Group 1s, but with limited storage we struggle with varietal segregation,” he adds.While his farm, historically, hasn’t had major issues with black-grass, Philip suggests that spring wheat does provide the opportunity for better control of it. “On most of our land we are managing black-grass at the moment and we want to keep it that way, so spring wheat drilled in February/March time will provide another tool with which to control black-grass on our cereal farm.”Generally speaking, he says that November-drilled spring wheat on his farm yields 9-10t/ha, January-drilled 8.5-9t/ha and, when drilled later as a true spring crop, it yields 8-8.5t/ha.”That said, you never know from season-to-season when spring wheat is going to be drilled as so much depends on the weather and how that affects other autumn operations on the farm, but it does give you that freedom to drill when you want to and still get good yields,” he concludes.Three-crop benefit As well as the obvious benefits of outperforming winter wheats in late drilled situations and helping to spread the autumn workloads, growers looking to modify crop rotations to comply with the three-crop ruling should look no further than spring wheat, points out KWS.The company suggests that a switch in a small area of winter wheat to a spring variety will bring little, if any yield penalty for later autumn sowings and cause few management issues.The comments come on the back of Defra’s confirmation that spring and winter varieties of the same crop are defined as different under the three-crop rule.This means that as long as varieties are on the National List and defined as a spring or winter variety, they will count as separate crops for those looking for a third crop option to meet CAP reform measures, says the breeder.Under the ruling, that comes into force in January 2015, spring and winter crops will be determined by variety not drilling date and this will enable growers to drill spring varieties in the autumn and for these to count as spring rather than winter crops.