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Benchmarking essential to beat ongoing volatility

Knowing that farm security was about more than just producing high yielding crops, Andrew Ward set about benchmarking every part of his business several seasons ago. Now he and his team of Ruben Sampson and Tom Hyland are going a stage further with a carbon audit with the NFU.

To describe the audit as extensive is probably an understatement. It covers every aspect of crop production, energy use and generation on the farm and carbon capture. As a result, the team know every tree and its approximate age and that they have 23km of mature hedgerow. This might appear excessive, but according to the experts, younger trees absorb more carbon than older, more established ones.

It’s a lot of work but worth doing, suggests Andrew. That is because he has to future proof the farm against further volatility and shocks to the system.

When Andrew started benchmarking the business, it clarified where he was spending his money – particularly the investment in fertiliser and fuel. With crude oil so exposed to global politics, it was an obvious point to limit risk.

One way Andrew is trying to reduce fuel is through direct drilling. Inversion tillage methods using various combinations of Simba Solo, Freeflow drill Cultipress and Great Plains X-Press for winter wheat establishment last season used a respectable amount of fuel. In some cases, over 40-litres/ha.

That is significantly higher than his direct drilling system of the Freeflow followed by a roll. Here, fuel use was just 16.1-litres/ha. Drilling the cover crop burnt around the same amount but still significantly better than the inversion approach.

Andrew reckons he can do about 40% of his area this way, but something else is needed for the heavier soils.

To evaluate this, he hosted a direct drilling day earlier season in conjunction with Agrii (see pages 43–45, which compared 10 different drills. The idea is not just to reduce fuel use, but also to assess soil, environmental and carbon benefits. However, they do believe some level of inversion tillage will be needed – possibly 25% of their land being done this way per season.

The day also allowed the team to trial strip, disc and tine direct drills on their heavy clays soils to see which works best. This will conclude with yield comparisons for each come harvest.

Tailoring to soil type

Another ongoing trial at the farm is the use of cover crops. For the last seven years, a field has been put aside to look at various establishment methods. It is work in progress – they have seen an improvement in soil structure but also seen some crop failures. What they have learnt is that direct drilling cover crops and cash crops does not work on their difficult clay soils. “We’ve found we need to create a friable tilth when establishing the cover crop so the spring cash crop can be successfully direct drilled,” notes Andrew.

The team also trialled various fertiliser regimes and a reduced pass. The results do add weight to the possibility of reducing N rates in winter wheat without a yield penalty. Of a number of programmes, including those with inhibitors, the best yields were achieved by a total dose of 140kg/N/ha over two splits with no inhibitor. It is one season so more data is needed but it shows what might be possible with continuous wheats.

There’s also a much more tailored approach to nutrition. Over recent years N-min testing has increased, as has work to look at the value of widened rotation. This now includes nitrogen fixing crops like spring beans and the team reckon this could equate to 50kg/N/ha in some seasons. Like many, Andrew is looking ahead to next season, so any savings in applied N this season could be welcome next.

Another aim is to keep a lid on fungicide spend. Last year he typically spent £115/ha through a four-spray programme. A 0.8-litres/ha dose of generic tebuconazole at the T0 allowed for Xpro and Inatreq technology to be employed at the key timings.

Their focus is on getting all four spray timings ‘spot on’. “We take great care to get our timings right and optimise coverage of the target leaf. Fungicides work best as protectants and this gives us more choices with products and rates. If you are forced into curative products then you’ll pay a premium and you’ll never fully rectify the situation,” says Tom.

They’ve also been re-thinking variety choice. Shabras has been added to the wheat variety list due to its light land performance, suitability as a second wheat and septoria rating. “It will help us improve our spray planning. We can target fields by those under greater pressure or reaching leaf emergence first,” he adds.

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