The role of todays agronomist is constantly changing. Each new seasonbrings with it a unique set of challenges, whether they are responding to increasinglychallenging legislative boundaries or managing for resistance within anenvironment of diminishing active ingredients, whilst still needing to maximiseyields within closely managed financial margins.
However within this environment, the core task of the agronomistremains the same, providing vital agronomic advice and product procurement to supporta successful farm business, says Patrick Stephenson, chairman of theAssociation of Independent Crop Consultants.
There is no such thing as a normal season anymore, we are having toadapt to earlier seasons, extremes of weather, ever increasing disease pressureas well as battling against aggressive and resistant weed populations.
Mr Stephenson points out that the need to be kept abreast of fastchanging environmental and legislative goal posts has never been greater foragronomists. As the industry strives to find solutions against the legislativeand pest and disease battles that we face it is crucial that we are at theforefront of these, and involved in how these are applied in the field.
This season we are also faced with major readjustment as growersrespond to the three-crop rule and greening requirements for the first time. So,as agronomists we are making decisions and supporting growers on how this newlegislation will play out on individual farms to ensure that this fits withinthe whole farm strategy as well as possible.
At this years Association of Independent Crop Consultants conference,in Towcester, the need for technicalexchange and debate to support these challenges was more evident than ever, as leadingresearchers and experts came together to present their latest findings on arange of these very pertinent themes and topics to over200 independentagronomists and industry representatives.
The AICC sets itself out to be unique amongst the industrysorganisations; established in 1981 it is the only professional body for trulyindependent crop consultants. This means that all of our 240 memberagronomists have to adhere to a strict code of conduct which means that theadvice that they deliver is truly independent with no commercial bias orcommission from product sales, says Sarah Cowlrick, CEOand conference manager.
Over the last ten years we have seen considerable growth in ourmembership, particularly from younger agronomists and AICC members now have aninfluence on over 1.15m has of the UKs arable land- about 43% of the UKindependent advice market.
Sessions on fungicide and herbicide activity, soils, legislation, andprecision farming took centre stage – and there were key learnings to use forthe coming spring.
There were words of caution from Julie Smith, plant pathologist atADAS, who warned against complacency this season to Light Leaf Spot, emphasisingthat the disease is no longer a northern disease but has spread across thecountry
Ms Smithwarned that the whole of the UK is at very high risk of LLS infection due tolast seasons high infection levels on pods and stems which has resulted incarryover of inoculum on trash.
Understand and use all of the available chemistry for barleyfungicides programmes, was the advice of Dr Fiona Burnett of SRUC. Make useolder chemistry early in the programme, for example strobilurins still havegood activity against Ramularia, saving the newer SDHI chemistry for later inthe programme and this will help to minimise the risk of resistance whilstusing the most effective chemistry where it is needed most
Tom McCabe of University College of Dublin, confirmed that underconditions of high Septoria pressure found in the wetter conditions of Ireland,triazole performance had indeed slipped, and to counter this recommended thathigh dose rates and mixtures were used to sustain and improve the overall performanceof the triazoles.
Mr McCabe added that in his trials, SDHIs continue to perform well,adding that there was a positive benefit from the addition of chlorothalonil toall of the SDHIs at T2.
Ron Stobart of NIAB TAG, reminded agronomists of the benefits of covercropping.
When managed and grown as a crop in its own right, cover crops canout-compete weeds providing a cleaner seedbed, reduce erosion the use ofbrassicas can sterilise the soil, and can also improve soil structure if thecorrect type of crops are used in the mix.
Jake Freestone, manager at Overbury Farms, described the benefits hehas seen from cover crops, pointing out that by getting these right to suit hisparticular conditions and soil types, he has improved organic matter from 2% to8%, and has helped to promote better natural drainage and reduce soil erosion.
In the session on the impact of changing legislation, Don Pendergastof the NFU underlined the effects that the industry is already facing such as adrop in R & D investment from 33.3% in 1980 to 7.7% in 2015, as confidencein future legislation wanes. He urged the audience to engage with the healthyHarvest project as a means of defending against further active losses throughgood practise and stewardship.
Warning over impending active ingredient losses as a result of the WFDwere given out by Andy Bailey of Dow Agro Sciences as he underlined theimportance of engaging with the upcoming Defra Pesticides Project which willdirectly impact the future of many of our key actives for growing oilseed rape.
Andrew Wells, of Farming Advice Service, himself an AICC member, gaveguidance on implementing greening measures on farm this spring. Keep thingssimple, and aim to leave some safety margin whilst coming to terms with the exactrules, he said. Be aware ofrestrictions on where hedges must sit to claim them as part of the 5%.
Farmer James Rimmer described how he implements Precision Farming onhis farm in Kent. Precision Farming is all about observing, measuring andresponding to field variability It can increase efficacy, improve accuracy and optimise inputs.For example by making applications more accurate, you can save 4% onoverlaps. He warned however thatfarmers need to make sure the data collected is relevant to their strategicadvice and planning.
Looking to the future, chartered engineer Sam Wanefrom Harper Adams University talked about the reality of farming with robots.We already have light weight tractors that seed or scout crops at any time ofyear. In the future we envisage microsprayers that identify weeds and spraythem individually. Or maybe laser machines that zap out growing points.Precision Farming is about Smart Farming, using smaller lighter machines,controlled by people and in communication with one another, intelligentlytargeting inputs.
Looking forward, black-grass and weed resistanceremain a challenge and Dr Richard Hull from Rothamsted said that there are over20,000 farms in 35 counties with confirmed black-grass resistance. Target site resistance to ALS herbicides iswidespread. There are in excess of 700 farms in 27 counties with resistance toAtlantis. ACCase (fops/dims) target site resistance is present in over 80% ofpopulations tested, mainly by the Ile-1781 mutation. Enhanced metabolismresistance to residual herbicides is also widespread, but is partial and slow.So these herbicides remain the key to black-grass control.
He warned that resistance to rye-grass andwild-oats remained low, but needed watching as it could increase.
Dr Stephen Moss of Rothamsted , the industry expert on black-grassresistance for over 40 years, starting by saying black-grass is a major problembecause of early sowing of more autumn crops and weed resistance. He advisedthat drilling after Sept/October, the peak of black-grass germination can beavoided and the weed is 55% less competitive.
If you delay drilling by 3 weeks, pre-em herbicides will work better,as you have fewer weeds, less seed return from those weeds, less competitionand better residual control. Control by flufenacet herbicides was just 45% midSeptember but 74% mid October, 81% end of October and 85% mid-November.
He also observed that flufenacet is relatively unaffected byresistance. In 375 trials between 2001 and 2013, the mean reduction ofblack-grass from Crystal or Liberator remained at 70%. There looks to be nodecline in performance except in a dry year such as 2012 when control slumpedto 49%.