Updated: Apr 27, 2020
We know how our varieties perform in trial but what’s even more important is how they perform on farm, and that’s where our Growers Club comes in.
We would like to introduce two of our Growers Club members, Matt Full and Tom Reynolds, who are sharing their insights and experience with some of our varieties.
Heathcote Farms, Herne Manor Farm, Toddington, Bedfordshire
Area farmed: 1150 hectares
Soil types: Mainly heavy clay (Hanslope series), greensand on one smaller unit
Key crops: Usual: Winter wheat, winter oilseed rape, spring beans, cover crops. This season: Spring wheat, spring barley, winter oilseed rape, spring beans.
Typical cultivations: Rotational plough (one year in seven), minimum cultivations (tines/discs as required)
RAGT varieties: RGT Planet
Main markets: Wheat for milling.
RGT Planet spring barley has shot through the ground this spring, having been drilled in near-ideal conditions into warming soils, says Matt Fuller.
Matt, who is the sprayer and drill operator at Heathcote Farms, works closely with farms manager Andrew Robinson on the operations planning and management.
He was walking the 105ha of RGT Planet when we called earlier this week. “We finished drilling it on 2 April. It’s now putting out a second tiller and looks really well.
“We know other farmers that have grown it including my dad, who farms in Cambridgeshire. He has always got on well with it – it’s certainly a vigorous variety.”
The crop received a phosphorous primer at drilling to help encourage rooting. It has also had most of its fertiliser and a round of trace elements. “We’re growing it for feed so will push it for yield,” says Matt.
He has also drilled 460 ha of spring wheat and 150ha of spring beans over the past few weeks. The cereal ground was spring tined to lift and dry soils, and the Vaderstad Rapid drill’s discs were replaced with tines.
“This allowed us to drill the headlands last, which accounted for about 40% of the spring barley area, and we’ve certainly noticed a difference in emergence,” says Matt.
Oilseed rape is the only winter crop this season. All 270ha made it through the winter and early spring. The spring cereals are all replacing winter varieties, none of which were drilled due to the incessant autumn and winter rains.
“We changed plans early on,” says Matt. “Blackgrass is the main driver in most decisions we take, and we’ve put a lot of effort into improving soil health and structure, targeting sewage sludge and compost and, more recently, using cover crops to add organic matter and improve soil structure through rooting.
“We didn’t want to maul wheat into the ground and then regret it. Spring cropping will bring its own benefits in terms of blackgrass control. It also means we should be set up well for next season’s drilling campaign, rather than having to spend the next couple of years trying to put things right.”
Wheats are usually grown for milling. The team is also investigating Group 4 softs for some of the lighter ground, where attaining milling wheat specs can be a problem.
The farm usually hosts Openfield wheat variety trials, useful in helping to decide which varieties will suit the farm, says Matt. Unfortunately, these also fell victim to the weather.
The trials, which involve 20-25 varieties, are independent, with farm staff deciding on inputs and their rates, gathering information and recording it.
“You can gauge varieties to a certain extent on the Recommended List information, but trials on your own farm can show up other characteristics that may favour one over the other,” says Matt.
“We also keep a control strip for each variety, in which we use only trace elements and biostimulants to see how resilient the varieties are. We also tissue test each commercial block and we end up with quite a high spend on both these inputs, but we are trying to get as much out of the crop as possible.”
A five-year milling wheat average that exceeds 11t/ha suggests the tactic is working well.
Variable rate fertiliser has been used on the farm for 15 years and full GPS guidance for the past eight. Variable rate seeding is now also employed, helping to lift yields on previously under-performing areas.
“We aim for 600 ears per sq m across our wheats, so there is lots of plant, tiller and ear counting going on, not just in the trials but across commercial crops too,” says Matt.
Variable rate PGR and trace element applications are now being tried, underlining the ongoing commitment by the farm team to pursue all possible means to continue driving profitable crop production.
S Salbstein Ltd, Pent Farm, Postling, Kent
Area farmed: 250 hectares plus contracting arrangements
Soil types: Heavy clay, brash soils on downs, chalk downland (grassland).
Key crops: Usual – grass seed, winter wheat, winter barley, winter beans. This season – grass seeds, spring barley, winter vetch, winter wheat, winter beans (spring sown).
Typical cultivations: Direct drill where possible
RAGT varieties: Spring barley – RGT Planet, Grass seed – Syntilla (Italian ryegrass); RGT Cordial (hybrid ryegrass)
Main markets: Seed, plus other markets as needed
Tom Reynolds has been busy catching up on his drilling programme over the past few weeks after the unusually wet weather that hit last autumn.
He managed to drill about 100ha of grass seeds in September, followed by 28ha of winter vetch for cover crop seed before the weather closed in early October.
He did start drilling RGT Blossom winter wheat for seed during a brief dry spell at the end of that month, but only managed 20ha before the weather closed in again.
“The grass and vetch look good,” says Tom. “They established well enough to cope with the extremely wet winter months that followed.
Unfortunately, the winter wheat suffered and it looks like we have lost 20-30%. It’s worth leaving, but we don’t have particularly high hopes for yield.
“It’s not the fault of the establishment method or the variety – some of the crop just rotted. Whatever we’d have tried, it would have come to a similar or worse fate.”
The remainder of his winter wheat, including RGT Lantern, will remain in the bag until next autumn. He took the chance to sow winter beans in early spring, but his largest crop this year is spring barley, all of it RGT Planet.
“We’ve grown the variety for several years. It was certainly a step up when it was introduced and it has continued to do very well.
“We farm-saved the seed to try to keep costs down and it went into good conditions. I waited until the soil was fit, and we ended up finishing at the end of the first week of April, so we had a pretty good go at it. Our Horsch Sprinter, which is fitted with Metcalfe low-disturbance tines, did a good job.”
The crop will go for feed. “I don’t think there will be a malting market to speak of this harvest, but given the shortage of wheat I suspect there will be a fair bit of substitution going on in the feed mills.
“I’ve already sold a reasonable amount for harvest movement. It’s a cheaper crop to grow, so things aren’t looking too bad – certainly better than a few months ago.”
Tom, who manages the farm in partnership with his uncle, was busy drilling maize earlier this week when we spoke to him. In addition to the main farming operation, they run a contracting business, specialising in maize drilling and foraging as well as some grass silage work and a range of arable operations.
All crops on the home farm usually go for seed. The rotation is based around the grass seed; as well as being a profitable crop the two-year leys are also a key weapon to help control blackgrass.
“Blackgrass is a big issue,” says Tom, who walks his own crops and does his own agronomy. “Late drilling doesn’t really work on our soil types so we look to our rotation to achieve control,
“Over the past couple of years we have also focused on drainage to help alleviate the problem. We also introduced direct drilling in 2012 and we are using this across all crops as much as we can, using low-disturbance tines.
“We need to look after the soil, not just for blackgrass control purposes. It is our most valuable resource and we want to keep it in the best of health.
“We place a pretty strong emphasis on looking after the farm. We have always been in environmental schemes, notably for chalk downland and water protection on the lower land, and we will need to focus more on this as ELMS develops.
“As a farm and as an industry, the key to everything we do is to remain flexible, particularly given the uncertainties we are currently facing.”