Size or soil type are no barriers to successful farming. Charles Mathieson’s farm – Crawly Hall, Norton, Suffolk – is proof that size isn’t everything and good attention to detail can overcome handicaps that are inevitable in an industry like farming.
With less than 400ha of arable land that is mainly a mixture of sandy loams, located in one of the driest UK counties he is more likely to scoop a lottery jackpot than grow a record wheat crop. But it hasn’t stopped him improving farm performance.
Rolling mean wheat yields are what they were 20 years ago, around 9.5t/ha, but so is gross margin. Given average UK inflation of 2.73 per cent per annum, increasing weed, pest and disease pressures and climate volatility that is a performance he is rightly proud of.
His soils meant seeking significant yield increases was unrealistic so he went the other way and looked at building better resilience to preserve margins in more challenging seasons. “Our problem is the crops just give in when it turns dry and hot. So we shifted our strategy to improving margin in the poorer seasons rather than try and exploit the good ones more,” says Mr Mathieson.
His strategy is based on giving every seed the best chance and achieving an establishment rate of 90 per cent to deliver field uniformity.
Winter wheat seed rates are varied using an electric drive on the metering unit but rarely exceed 325/m2, even in heavier soils. He had to improve soil structure to achieve a 90 per cent establishment rate. With the subject now in vogue he could be considered an early adopter.
The number of worm casts shows how soil has improved and it has helped reduce crop stress and evened out the peaks and troughs in wheat performance.
Despite decent margins sugar beet was dropped at the turn of the decade as it took a full rotation on the heavier land for soils to fully recover, pulling back every other crop in his rotation.
Soil nutrient testing identified the worst nutrient deficient fields, the compacted areas and wet spots. More muck was incorporated and all N P and K is now variably applied, with spot applications of lime. “It’s helped even up field indices and seen an overall reduction in nutrition spend. Our Siskin, Gleam, Skyscraper and Graham are unlikely to get more than 200kg N/ha. We’re retaining more in the soil and losing less.”
With fungicide rates he takes a slightly different strategy as these aren’t variably applied, despite lighter land and septoria resilience in Siskin, Gleam, Skyscraper and Graham.
A member of Bayer’s Xpro Farmers Club, it gave him the chance to test products on his own farm with interesting results. The lesson was to ensure products are used at recommended rates especially the all-important flag leaf timing.
In 2016 a four spray programme of tebuconazole + CTL, Aviator (prothioconazole + bixafen) + CTL, Ascra (prothioconazole + bixafen + fluopyram) and a final tebuconazole delivered 11.43t/ha in the trial field of Santiago. In a low disease year it suggested some physiological benefit, helping crops hang on to green leaf area.
On the lighter land he will look to an azole + CTL approach at T1 and he prefers this to a reduced rate of a SDHI fungicide. “Selecting varieties with respectable ratings helps here, but I would always go with a recommended rate of something like Ascra or Adexar (epoxiconazole + fluxapyroxad) at T2. Product choice will depend on threat with prothioconazole preferred where septoria threatens, and epoxiconazole if yellow/brown rust is the key concern.”
It might allow him to use a SDHI fungicide, such as Aviator, as a T3 option. Some years back he tried it as light disease pressure gave him the opportunity to hold off SDHI use. “In drought seasons I have seen poor filling of some of the lower grain sites, and wondered if an SDHI would help on the run up to grain fill. The crop faired quite well so there might be something here, although the variety was Siskin so late brown rust control might have been a factor too,” he concludes.