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Fenland potato trials show value of integrated agronomy

The crop safety of post-emergence herbicides was one of many topics under the spotlight at the Fenland demonstration

The move to a new site for the third year of the Hutchinsons Fenland Potato demonstration is already generating interesting results that will help shape future agronomy.

Integrated Potato Cyst Nematode (PCN) management, post-emergence herbicide crop safety, and seed age and planting date trials again took centre stage at the open day in July, hosted at AL Lee Farming Company’s Folly Farm near Ely.

Parts of the site were under higher PCN pressure than last year’s venue, nearby Friesland Farm, which meant clear differences had already emerged in the varietal resistance and tolerance trials, said Richard Austin Agriculture’s John Keer.

Pre-planting assessments found an initial PCN count of up to 164 eggs/g soil, all of which was the Globodera pallida species. “It’s a slightly more mineral soil than the rich black Fenland at Friesland Farm, so doesn’t offer as much resilience to the effects of PCN damage, which is helping highlight differences in our trials.”

Some 18 varieties were planted on 15th April and each was being compared with and without a nematicide (fosthiazate).

“PCN levels are consistently high across the trial area, which is bringing out differences in variety tolerance. We will take crops to harvest to see how yield is affected,” Mr Keer explained. “By measuring PCN populations pre-planting and after harvest, we will also be able to see how varietal resistance, or lack of, affects PCN multiplication in the soil.”


Initial observations reinforced the view that tolerant varieties were generally those with more vigorous growth that produced larger root systems better able to withstand feeding by larvae, he said. While tolerant varieties could withstand feeding damage and still yield well in the presence of PCN, without resistance, they would let cyst numbers multiply over the season.

“Tolerance and resistance are not linked. PCN still feeds on the roots of resistant varieties and those with low tolerance can therefore suffer quite a lot of damage, even if the crop’s resistance prevents new cysts forming.”

At Folly Farm, varieties that had so far showed good PCN tolerance (i.e. little visible difference between treated and untreated plots) included Arsenal, Brooke, Cara, Performer, Rock and Royal. In contrast, Maris Peer, Innovator and Sagitta exhibited more noticeable effects indicating lower tolerance.

“The really interesting detail will come when we measure the yield impact and see how G. pallida varietal resistance affects final PCN count after harvest,” commented Mr Keer.

“The ideal would be to grow a variety with good PCN tolerance, and resistance to both species, that is also accepted by end users. That’s not always possible, but the judicious use of resistant varieties and other integrated controls could buy flexibility to grow non-resistant varieties where necessary.”

Herbicide effects

The third year of the crop safety from post-emergence herbicides trial again showed noticeable differences between varieties, Hutchinsons root crop technical manager Darryl Shailes said.

There’s always potential for some crop damage from post-emergence herbicides, but the extent is variety-specific

The impact on vigour and necrosis/chlorosis of four different post-em herbicides on seven varieties had been assessed, and results generally supported findings from previous seasons.

“There’s always potential for some crop damage from post-emergence herbicides, but the extent is variety-specific.”

For example, bentazone had been consistently aggressive on Agria, causing noticeable scorch. Markies also suffered more scorch from bentazone than in previous seasons, potentially because the crop was under stress at the time of application, he said. In contrast, Innovator was more tolerant of bentazone, but was susceptible to damage from metribuzin. Other varieties such as Performer and Royal showed minor effects and generally grew away well.

“We set up the trial to look at yield effects across the varieties to see if scorch or vigour reduction has a significant effect. Unfortunately, plots got waterlogged twice so establishment wasn’t as we would have liked so it will difficult to draw conclusions in terms of yield.

“However, this work gives us greater confidence to make recommendations to our clients, even where applications may not be supported by herbicide manufacturers,” Mr Shailes added. “Manufacturers do very little research on varietal impact and when they do it tends to be ultra-cautious.”

Fine-tuning seed choices

The seed age and planting date trial, run by Farmacy’s Stefan Williams, further examined how differences in planting date and chronological age of three Scottish Maris Piper seed lots (one chitted and two non-chitted) affected marketable yield and quality. “Old” seed was seed crops with a 50 per cent emergence date of 15th May, whereas “young” seed was 5th June.

Test digs reinforced previous work showing that younger seed produced more tubers than older seed and that chitting seed before planting produced fewer tubers across all three planting dates (15th April, 1st May and 16th May). Plots will be taken to harvest to see the effect on yield and tuber size.

“Buying the right seed lot and protecting chits during planting makes a big difference,” said Mr Williams.

“Older seed, consistently over the last three years of trials has produced 20 per cent fewer tubers than ‘younger’ seed. Targeting ‘older’ seed stocks means we are reducing our tubers per plant ratio, therefore achieving a higher proportion of 75mm+ tubers for chipping and processing.”

Mr Williams continued: “When I first came to the farm five years ago, growing chitted Maris Piper seed was quite common for later planting. But it can be hard not to damage chits even on modern planters. Our work shows in some cases only 20 per cent of chitted seed planted remains undamaged. Potentially you can double tuber number where the chit hasn’t been knocked off compared with one that has.

“If we don’t chit seed, it can be challenging to spread planting dates and our trials suggest if we were to change to mid-May planting of unchitted Piper, we could have higher numbers of smaller potatoes. If the business stays with chitted seed, we need stronger chits and gentler handling to protect them and avoid tubers wasting energy producing chits that get knocked off.”

Rubber and polyurethane wear parts for potato equipment

Fitting equipment with the best wear components can avoid costly breakdowns and maintain equipment efficiency for longer, which can often be affected through premature component wear.  

Rubber and polyurethane wear parts can play an essential role in many aspects of the potato industry including soil preparation, planting, harvesting, cleaning and packing, says Clifton Rubber. Its range of rubber and polyurethane components includes harvester rollers, de-stoning stars, cleaning stars and cleaning coils.

Clifton Rubber has been manufacturing wear parts for the potato industry for more than 40 years

No-till potato trials show role in soil regeneration

No-till potatoes grown under a straw mulch could help farmers to restore degraded arable soils cost-effectively if used as a cash crop within a regenerative cropping rotation, according to ProCam agronomist Richard Harding.

Presenting results from a four-year trial at the recent Groundswell conservation agriculture event, Mr Harding said revenue from the potatoes would offset the cost of importing straw, creating a viable route to more sustainable production.

“Our first step was to grow a high biomass cover crop,” he said, “as this is an essential entry into the no-till potatoes. Then, we placed the potato tubers on the surface and created a mulch by unrolling and fluffing up round bale straw at a rate of around 34t/ha. Through this method, we achieved a potato crop of 46t/ha of saleable tubers, so about 75 per cent of a normal crop yield but without the high cost of conventional cultivations. Tuber size range was more variable than from a crop grown conventionally, so finding a market for mid-range potatoes will help to maximise the returns, or the system would work well for producing seed potatoes.

“Following potatoes, we’ve strip tilled the ground and established wide-row crops, such as maize or pumpkins, using a drill with row cleaners to overcome the remaining straw residues.”

ProCam agronomist Richard Harding

Mr Harding believes there is enough evidence to now look at commercialisation of the methodology.

“One of the biggest challenges in making our soils more resilient is to build soil organic matter levels in a way that is practical and financially viable,” he adds. “If we can do this, we can capture all the inherent benefits this brings in terms of improved moisture retention, better nutrient use efficiency, reduced draft requirement at planting, and lastly the most important benefit of improving the biological activity of the soil.

“We’ve shown what’s possible on a small scale, so now we need to apply some existing technologies, such as those used in the mechanised horticultural sector, to demonstrate what’s possible commercially.”

Spearmint sprout suppressant offers alternative to CIPC

Following the announcement of the withdrawal of approval for CIPC as a sprout suppressant on potatoes in store, the industry has been rushing to learn about how to get the best from alternatives.  

Biox-M has been used successfully on a wide range of British potato varieties since it was first approved a decade ago. Its use has been widespread in the fresh market and organic crops, however the processing sector has been slower to look at the alternatives, says the manufacturer. 

Trials using Biox-M in large commercial processing stores on the continent have proved successful, and a number of British growers of processing crops are undertaking commercial scale trials with the 2019 crop. 

Biox-M is 100 per cent naturally occurring spearmint oil, extracted from leaves of spearmint by on-farm steam distillation, followed by separation and blending to ensure an even (and minimum 70 per cent) concentration of the active L-Carvone. It suppresses sprouting in potatoes by causing local necrosis of the bud meri-stem with no visible damage to the skin of the tuber.  The product is approved for use on organic potato crops and can be used in multi-use stores. 

As well as fresh potatoes it can also be used on processing crops stored at up to 10ºC, which allows store managers to address concerns about the development of acrylamide. It is applied to stores as a hot fog using existing technology, and is most effective with internal air circulation used to ensure even distribution in-store.

It can also be applied with an evaporative process (this is awaiting CRD approval), which maintains a saturated atmosphere at lower cost. Biox-M leaves no residue in buildings or boxes.

It suppresses sprouting by causing local necrosis of the bud meristem
Biox-M has been used as a sprout-suppressant since it was first approved a decade ago










AHDB host desiccation events to aid growers

AHDB Potatoes is to host a range of events designed to help growers fine tune their desiccation programme following the loss of diquat. This ban has had significant ramifications for multiple growers’ desiccation strategies, due to its common usage, and the limited alternatives available that are as effective and economical.

In response to this potential ban, AHDB’s Strategic Farm programme has been conducting national demonstration trials to investigate alternative desiccants and combinations of these that growers can use in face of the popular herbicide’s absence. The trials look at both chemical and mechanical options, and focus on dealing with factors that can make desiccation challenging – such as heavy soils and indeterminate varieties.

This season’s trials work is currently underway across four of our current strategic farms in England, with additional work being carried out in Scotland and Wales.

The venues for desiccation days include Elveden Estate in Suffolk, Strategic Potato Farm West in Shropshire as well as Aberdeenshire. All dates to be confirmed.

Harvester offers improved efficiency

The AR range of 3- and 4-row root crop harvesters from Ploeger has been designed for gentle operations while maintaining operational efficiency. 

The wide body design ensures minimal web narrowing throughout the machine, as crops pass to the various haulm, soil, stone and clod removal options that are available.

Ploeger’s UK subsidiary, PMC Harvesters, area sales manager Steven Skipper said that growers were worried about harvest machinery dealing with excessive haulm: “This has led to improved separation systems and some machines being supplied with inspection webs fitted for as many as six picking staff. 

The Ploeger AR4-BX 4-row potato harvester with 14t bunker

“A high proportion of UK crop is being sent straight from the field to processors and packers. By removing the necessity to transport crop back to the farmyard, to be subjected to another cleaning and manual inspection process, is an attractive feature for many growers.”

The holding hopper which has 14t capacity has also proved popular with farmers he said. The Ploeger’s capacity to drive in very heavy conditions allows some growers to utilise the harvester to take the crop to the headlands and verges and unload into the waiting trailers, so avoiding unnecessary trailer movements on the fields.

High manoeuvrability is achieved with 48º steering on the front axle and 18º rear steering on the Claas tracks.

New box filler extends handling range

Vegetable handling equipment specialist Haith has extended its range of box fillers, with the launch of the Supa-Fill 400 Pro box filler.

Capable of filling up to 40 boxes per hour, the Supa-Fill 400 comes with an Omron NB 3 HMI control screen, giving the user fingertip access to the machine’s advanced functions, including manual and fully automatic box filling, box height selection, lifetime and batch counting for stock recording and assisting with maintenance scheduling.

As well as the HMI screen, the Supa-Fill 400 also offers variable speed control as standard and a flat belt with fall retarders which provide better cushioning to the crop compared to machines using cleats or door stops.

The Supa-Fill 400 accommodates boxes from 900-1200mm in height. Its self-levelling sensors ensures consistently even filling, says Haith.

“We’ve taken our class-leading box filler and improved it,” says Haith UK sales Ken Hollingsworth. “The result is a machine that offers the best possible handling, works quickly and efficiently and features advanced functionality as standard.”

As well as improving the features found on the machine, Haith has also extended the warranty from one to two years at no extra cost.

The company showcased the SupaFill 400 Pro as well as its Rota-Tip S along with mobile graders and washers at last month’s Potatoes in Practice event in Dundee.

It was the company’s 11th consecutive appearance at the event.

The Supa-Fill 400 Pro from Haith

High precision GPS for farming

Using GPS provided by RTKF Net (formerly RTK Farming) has helped one East Anglian business improve the efficiency of its potato production.

Tom Pask of Frederick Hiam has been using the service for five years. “For our potato crops we do all our ridging with RTK. This has allowed us to eliminate narrow beds and ensure that they are the same width, therefore maximising the number of beds in the field and production. 

“The accuracy and repeatability of RTK allows operators to concentrate on the operation behind the tractor ensuring depths are correct and ridges are perfect, confident in the knowledge that the tractor is exactly where it should be.”

Picture courtesy of Frederick Hiam Ltd

The RTK is then used on the planter to follow the AB lines created by the ridger, reducing initial in-field setup and ensuring that the operator can concentrate on the planting and not on the position of the tractor, he adds. “This is time and energy efficient and greatly reduces driver fatigue.

“Finally we use RTK on the sprayer, combined with auto section control and shut-off, we have seen a reduction in inputs and the corresponding costs that come with this.”

Bringing old harvesters back to life

A current project for Steve Thorley is to revitalise a potato harvester bought by a customer at auction

Lincolnshire-based Steve Thorley is often asked to service and repair potato harvesters by growers who can’t justify the expense of a new machine.

As well as a large range of machinery for every budget, he has staff, a fleet of vans and access to parts for every major brand of potato equipment.

“We’re not just about Reekie,” says Steve. “Our history is with sales and service of any brand. Geographically speaking, we’re sat within easy reach of most of the major manufacturers of in-field and in-store equipment that are working in the UK. 

“Our 26 years of business and OEM activities have provided the knowledge to source directly from parts manufacturers or alternative suppliers. This helps us stay competitive. Genuine parts are always an option.”

A current project has taken this approach to the next level, says Steve.

“A customer approached us with the intention of buying a good specification harvester that had been through the wars and available at auction for not much more than ‘breaking for parts’ prices. Once delivered to our yard, following a thorough appraisal, the customer gave us the green light to start work.

“The harvester is still in progress but, upon completion the customer has the option of an excellent fresh harvester for not so much more than the price of a comprehensive service, or treating it as an investment, a machine to sell on.”

New dealer for potato kit in East Anglia

Worcestershire based vegetable specialist Edwards Farm Machinery has teamed up with RWL Services which will be representing the manufacturer for Haulm Pulveriser sales in East Anglia.

Available in single bed 2-row or 3-bed 6-row hydraulic folding versions, the Edwards potato Haulm Pulveriser overcomes the expensive need for cross conveyors as there are three stationary knives.

Being fitted with three stationary knives allows the machine to create a very fine chopped haulm, the manufacturer explains.

The haulm will then easily drop through the web and haulm rollers of the harvester.

The Haulm Pulveriser is fitted with 5V belts transmitting over 100hp to the rotor.

Customers can have the machine fitted with all long flails for flat beds, or shaped flails for ridged beds. The machine can also be fitted with deflectors to deflect the haulm away from the ridges.

Suffolk machinery dealer RWL Services will now be offering the Edwards Haulm Pulveriser to customers in East Anglia

Improving traceability of potato crops

This month sees the first ever Tolsma Track and Trace system installed in the UK, on a Lincolnshire farm close to Farm Electronics headquarters on the outskirts of Grantham. 

The Track and Trace system from Tolsma offers improved traceability of produce

The system provides an actual overview of the store and improved traceability of the product. Each box is fitted with an electronic tag with a unique ID number. This allows for adding information about variety, size and supplier to each individual box. From filling to emptying, every box movement is registered and stored. There is a terminal mounted onto the forklift which recognises which box it is moving and in turn sends this signal to a server via Wi-Fi. The big advantage is that there is always an overview of the amount of stored and available products and, as well as providing location information, it also allows recording of quality, size and position in store.  

The system is split into four stages: receiving, removing, grading and delivery. The central server contains the software and the database of Tolsma Track and Trace. Top and side views of the store can be shown on the terminal screen on the forklifts. 

The system requires Wi-Fi coverage throughout the store, processing and grading areas of the farm. Wi-Fi antennae are mounted onto the forklifts in the terminal and these then connect to the Wi-Fi access points which are mounted in the store where the forklift operates.

High capacity filler ticks all the boxes down under

A new twin-head box filler manufactured by UK handling specialist Tong Engineering is being put through its paces by a seed potato processor in Tasmania.

The MonstaFill is the latest in a series of new product developments from Tong. It is designed to gently and evenly fill 1 or 2t boxes and is maximising throughput capacity for Cherry Hill Coolstores in northern Tasmania. 

Cherry Hill Coolstores purchased its new seed potato intake system through Tong’s official dealer for Australia and New Zealand, Dobmac Machinery. 

The new MonstaFill box filler from Tong Engineering has increased efficiency for Australian seed potato processor Cherry Hill Coolstores

Processing over 15,000t of seed potatoes annually, Cherry Hill operates between the seed grower and the main crop grower. “For the potato seed grower we unload, apply fungicides, grade and prepare their seed for certification,” explains the company’s Andrew Langmaid. “For the seed buyers and main crop growers, we store the seed until planting season, and then prepare the potatoes for planting.”

“With the volume of seed coming to Cherry Hill, we needed to upgrade our intake system,” he says. “The new installation from Tong features a very similar set-up, albeit it much higher capacity, more advanced and energy efficient than our previous intake system, but it is the new MonstaFill box fillers that have really taken our capacity potential to the next level.”

The MonstaFill has reduced forklift requirements, which has increased the speed by which the company is processing crop into boxes, he explains. “Our complete intake system from Tong feeds 2 MonstaFill box fillers, one for 1t boxes and the other for 2t boxes, and we are now pretty much guaranteed that when a fully loaded bulker lorry arrives on our site, it will be driving back, unloaded in under an hour,” says Andrew. 

The MonstaFill box fillers are performing extremely well with the discharge mechanism ensuring an even fill of each box, and the integrated weight indicators transfer the data for each box directly into our crop statistics database. This has given us great gains in efficiency and will be a major tool for us keeping our costs down moving forwards.”

The rise of the purple sweet potato

The past decade has seen the UK demand for sweet potatoes quadruple with current sales standing at £94 million annually. Andrea Sharp reports on a vibrant variety. 

According to the American Sweet Potato Marketing Institute’s Sue Johnson-Langdon, “sweet potatoes have graduated from a specialty item to a mainstream product, registering a growth in popularity not only in the UK but across Europe.”

The purple sweet potato’s vibrant colour can be attributed to its rich content of the natural antioxidant, anthocyanin

In 2010, the purple Okinawan sweet potato was particularly highlighted as being one of the top superfoods to rapidly increase in popularity with British consumers over the next decade. This vibrantly purple root vegetable, a locally grown staple of Hawaiian and Japanese cuisine, is rich in flavour and packed with nutritional benefits. The plant contains 150 per cent more antioxidants than blueberries, helping to guard against cardiovascular diseases as well as cancer. It is rich in vitamins A, C and E, low in fat containing only 90 calories per 100g and even the leaves can be used as a spinach substitute. Other than their vibrant colour, another thing that makes purple sweet potatoes so unique is that they don’t metabolise quickly in the body, eliminating the chance of a sugar rush that you would generally expect with white potatoes.

The BBC documentary ‘How to Stay Young’ looked into claims that purple sweet potatoes can help you live until 100. Professor Craig Wilcox has been studying the Okinawan diet for the past decade, where life expectancy is 10 years higher than in the UK, and where there are currently more than 400 centenarians alive and well today. “I believe a key factor in their vigorous health can be attributed to the vegetable” Professor Wilcox says. “Sweet potatoes have been a go-to food for the Okinawans for a long time. They are easy to grow, very economical to produce and are powerhouses of nutrition.” As each Okinawan consumes over half a kilo of purple sweet potatoes a day, “it’s not an ice cream truck that visits your street, it’s the sweet potato truck”, he concluded.

During the documentary, tests were carried out back in the UK, which revealed the purple sweet potato contains high levels of anthocyanins, a natural compound with powerful antioxidant effects. “There is good scientific evidence that these compounds are beneficial to keeping a healthy blood flow” revealed one scientist from the University of Norwich. 

Typically imported from Southern US states, Egypt, Senegal and Israel, the sweet potato relies on warm and dry growing conditions. North Carolina, the USA’s biggest sweet potato growing state, was hit by two hurricanes last year, putting strain on UK supply. However, following a 2015 development in crop innovation by Hill Farm in Kent, the standard sweet potato is now also grown here in the UK with the aid of polythene-covered raised outdoor beds.

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