It could be argued that successful crop establishment in the UK has never been more important than it is now. Dominic Kilburn visits two farmers who are hoping that the trial of a starter fertiliser on their farms will point the way to improved establishment across a range of crops and, ultimately, better yields.
Think cereals and black-grass, think oilseed rape and flea beetle, think sugar beet and virus yellows – just a few of the current challenges arable farmers are facing when they set about drilling their crops each season.
Add into the mix weather extremes and crop protection product revocations, and you begin to realise how critical it can be to get crops established successfully each autumn and spring.
Placing fertiliser in the seedbed to give crops a boost is nothing new; growers up and down the country have been doing it for decades with combined seed/fertiliser drills, but there appears to be a renewed interest in starter fertilisers particularly in light of the increased area of cropping established via direct drilling over the past 10 years.
JS Tech launched its starter fertiliser Super Start onto the UK market last autumn to provide essential nutrients immediately to the developing plant. As well as phosphorus (35%) and nitrogen (10%), it contains sulphur (5%), zinc (2%) and magnesium (2%), with the aim of encouraging root development and boosting establishment, says the company, which is expecting substantial interest initially for maize, potatoes and oilseed rape, as well as spring cereals, vegetables and sugar beet.
Where JS Tech believes its product has a distinct advantage over conventional granular starter fertilisers is that it is more quickly available to the growing seed, says JS Tech’s managing director, Simon Stell.
“The product is placed in the soil right next to the seed and with granules of between 0.5–1.2mm, Super Start has a surface area 300 times that of conventional granular starter fertilisers, such as DAP and MAP, ensuring a faster release and quick availability following autumn or spring sowing,” he says.
According to Mr Stell, Super Start is used across 600,000ha in Europe and South America.
“It’s already very popular with maize growers where the wide rows make taking the fertiliser to the seed especially effective. It is not only placed right where it is needed, but also saves the cost, labour and logistics of a separate spreading operation.”
In addition, he says that application rates are low as accurate placement means less is needed, run-off is reduced and therefore cost benefits result. “Lower rates of active ingredients reduce leaching of P and N into waterways and help meet NVZ limits,” he points out.
In partnership with his mother Sylvia and sister Joy, Pip Partridge farms 330ha of arable cropping at Witnesham, a few miles to the north of Ipswich, where 90 per cent of crops are established via no-till since converting to the system in spring 2015.
Wheat, barley, rye for combining and beans make up most of the winter cropping while spring barley, winter oats (drilled in the spring) are grown on contract with ADM.
Some winter linseed was grown last season but out of the 40ha drilled, only half established – the crop not taking kindly to being drilled into trash or being attacked by pigeons, suggests Mr Partridge.
Oilseed rape is a notable absentee from the predominantly heavy land farm – issues with flea beetle exacerbating establishment difficulties and affecting yields. “That said, we’ve never been a big oilseed rape growing farm as, historically, we grew crops for animal rations and recent attempts to make progress with the crop post-neonic seed treatments have proved difficult,” he explained.
Last year Mr Partridge used a starter fertiliser for the first time. “Because we are ‘no-tilling’, we are always looking at different things to get crops off to a good start – we don’t get sufficient mineralisation of N through cultivations, and so crops need something else to help get them up and away quickly.
“Last autumn the wheat looked very well with fertiliser placed alongside the seed, but then again everything looked good last autumn,” he stressed.
“JS Tech suggested we tried some Super Start for this season as an alternative, and so we did with 4ha of Laureate spring barley drilled on loamy land, following a failed crop of linseed, and also with 4ha of Mascani winter oats, drilled in the spring.”
Mr Partridge said that one of the key elements of having spring crops in the rotation is to help with the control of black-grass. “Spring crop establishment is probably the biggest challenge for us with our system; cover crops go hand-in-hand with no-till but it does mean drilling in the spring for us typically doesn’t get underway until the 2nd or 3rd week in April, following cover crops such as tillage and forage radish, vetch, mustard and rye being sprayed off in January or February.
“This is fine in a more normal year, but the past three springs have been exceptionally dry, which puts further emphasis on trying to give crops a helping hand to get them away as quickly as possible,” noted Mr Partridge.
“With conventional establishment systems however, cover crops are ripped up in the autumn and spring drilling can start earlier, but because cover crops are part of our EFA, the earliest we spray off is mid January, and so it delays drilling a little,” he added.
Both the oats and spring barley crops containing the Super Start trial blocks were drilled into very dry conditions (31st March and 7th April respectively); the oats also receiving 40kg/ha of single super phosphate fertiliser down the spout, as well as the Super Start.
At the time of Farmers Guide’s visit on the 22nd May, there had been little rain since drilling and a dig down to root level within the oat trial revealed prills from the phosphate fertiliser still remaining, 52 days after drill date. By contrast there was no evidence of Super Start, which Simon Stell attributes to the product’s greater surface area and therefore quicker breakdown, even in dry conditions.
Although the entire crop had established well, at that early stage of the season it was hard to see any significant root development differences when comparing oat plants with and without the Super Start. However in the barley trial, root mass development where Super Start had been applied was notably greater.
“Yield at harvest will of course give us a better idea of how the trial has gone,” continued Mr Partridge, adding that the economics of Super Start can be judged properly at that stage. “When you start doing costings and compare it with a half rate of DAP then it might be perceived to be more expensive, but because of the concentration of a Super Start dose at 25kg/ha, and being put in the right place, you are getting more value for money and there’s also less product to manage.”
Mr Partridge believes that Super Start could play a very important role for the future, particularly on the farm’s heavier boulder clay land where pH levels can be high and responsible for locking up the available phosphorus. “And if you spread phosphorus on the surface rather than incorporate it, then it takes a long time to get down through the soil to the crop’s roots, so a product that is already there and available when the crop needs it makes sense,” he said.
“With no-till we are trying to encourage soil biology and are still to be convinced that starter fertiliser is the right option to encourage the interaction between the plant and the soil flora and fauna that will unlock unavailable phosphate. As we are in the early stages of transition I am keen to see if it helps our system. We haven’t lost moisture through cultivations and weeds have not been woken up – and having phosphate readily available from the start makes up for reduced soil nutrient mineralisation.
“Anything you can do for the rooting the better and the zinc in Super Start will play a part too,” he continues. “Because we are placing the nutrition very close to the seed rooting zone, a higher percentage of product is in the right area compared with other seedbed fertilisers,” adds Mr Partridge.
“I can see that it has improved the consistency of establishment in the spring, as well as helping crops to drought better, and yield results at harvest will be interesting.
“If I go back into rape again however, I’ll certainly use a starter fertiliser in the autumn and I will think about it for autumn wheat too,” he concluded.
Direct drilling beet
Also in Suffolk, Steve Taylor has been placing fertiliser in the seedbed with oilseed rape for the past three years, and this is the second season of placing it in the row when direct drilling sugar beet.
Mr Taylor farms approximately 340ha at Rogers Farm, Boxford in addition to two other contract farming arrangements in the area. Cropping on mainly sandy loam includes winter wheat, oilseed rape, winter barley, spring barley, peas and sugar beet.
In 2016 he began switching from a traditional establishment system to a zero-till regime using a Weaving GD drill, to establish winter combinable crops by drilling direct into stubble. That same year however he also invested in a 3m Sfoggia Sigma 5 drill with the aim of direct drilling any crop that required precision drilling, but also to have the ability to place fertiliser at the same time to give crops a “timely boost”.
Since then the drill has completed approximately 400ha of direct drilling in three seasons, planting crops including pumpkin, maize, sunflower, oilseed rape and sugar beet.
“This is the third season of direct drilling sugar beet with the drill and we’ve been developing the system,” said Mr Taylor. “If I’m honest, last season was the first time we ‘truly’ direct drilled beet – it’s been a case of refining the cultivator on the drill as we’ve gone along.”
He says that patience is key, particularly when direct drilling beet into cover crops; the top 2–3in of the soil needs to be drier than one might think otherwise smearing can occur, he explained.
“Yields last year matched the factory average which I was pretty pleased with. We might not be achieving top yields right now but the system is preserving moisture and soil health, and a benefit of direct drilling can really be seen at harvest,” he continued. “There were times when it was wet last harvest and if the beet had been established conventionally we wouldn’t have been able to lift the crop without the harvester making a real mess.
“But because we had direct drilled the beet, the ground was hard and harvesting was relatively easy,” said Mr Taylor.
“I would like to think that cover crops are helping the soil in their own right too; now we are not leaving land over winter for soil to leach,” he added.
Like Mr Partridge, Steve Taylor was approached by JS Tech to see if he’d try Super Start as part of his direct drilling regime, but this time on sugar beet, and so a trial was set up for spring 2019.
The chosen site received a variable rate P&K in February before a section of it was divided into 3 X 30m width strips and drilled with Betaseed variety BTS 1140 (marketed by Limagrain) on the 12th April.
The first strip was seed-only, the second was seed drilled with Super Start-only and the third contained a placed fertiliser (160kg/ha of 28-13-0) to the side and below the seed.
The whole field, including the trial plots also received 75kg of nitrogen broadcast at crop emergence.
As an addition, a second field close by was drilled with KWS Sabatina along with a half-rate of Super Start plus placed fertiliser, compared with placed fertiliser on its own.
Speaking to Farmers Guide recently, Mr Taylor said that while there may have been a slight difference in plant sizes when making early comparisons between plots during what turned out to be a variable, drought-affected establishment period through April and much of May, by early July (with crops at the 10-leaf stage) there was certainly an increase in leaf biomass and root size of those crops treated with Super Start, compared with those without.
“Plants without Super Start were smaller around the petiole and it’s fair to say that there were more lateral roots on Super Start-treated plants too,” he pointed out.
“Harvest will determine whether these slight visual differences result in an increase in yield compared with those not treated with Super Start, and I also hope to get some compaction root tests and sugar yield comparisons, as well as any yield differences,” said Mr Taylor.
With the aim of doing as much as he can within a single pass, Mr Taylor has been applying seedbed fertiliser in the row with a variety of crops for the past two years while direct drilling, and with the establishment challenges currently facing oilseed rape, he said he might try some Super Start on crops this autumn.
“It’s about moving oilseed rape through the growth stages as quickly as possible with readily available fertiliser, without having to come back and apply more N when there are other things to be doing,” he concluded.