East Anglia: Cambridge Arable Technologies conference highlights ‘huge differences’ in growing seasons

Richard Fenwick, technical director at Cambridge Arable Technologies.

Richard Fenwick, technical director at Cambridge Arable Technologies. - Credit: Archant

A conference has highlighted the huge differences between the growing seasons of 2012 and 2013.

Cambridge Arable Technologies’ (CAT) trials site near Little Bradley, Haverhill experienced the highs and lows of UK crop production, its annual winter conference heard.

The event, which was held near the trials site earlier this month, heard that in 2012 several wheat varieties were decimated by disease, while in 2013 most cereal diseases were conspicuous by their absence.

CAT technical director Richard Fenwick told the conference: “I have not seen such low disease pressure for many years and I have never seen such low response to fungicide. We know that the average response is around 15 - 16% and in 2012 it was 21%.

“Last year, the response was so low farmers would have been better off not using any fungicide at all.

“With a response of just 2.1% for our ‘farm input’ application rate, the input cost of £83/ha delivered just £30 extra return when a crop value of £150/t is applied.”

As such low disease pressure happens “one year in 25” crop protection strategies cannot be based on such unusual conditions, he advised.

Most Read

“Farmers need to match inputs to the season. In 2012 even our ‘high input’ regime gave a positive financial return.

“I think disease is once again present in crops in this region but in any season farmers would be advised to spray at growth stages T1 and T2 as this is when the greatest return is obtained.”

The huge differences in growing seasons also demonstrated the need to grow consistent varieties, he said.

“Last harvest, late maturing varieties performed much better than early ones, which is again in complete contrast to the previous year.

“I suggest choosing a range of consistent varieties with different maturity to cope with the large differences between years.”

Out of the new varieties on the Home Grown Cereals Authority (HGCA) Recommended List he identified the Group 1 bread making wheat Skyfall and feed wheat Evolution as being “worth watching”.

CAT plans to carry out trials designed specifically to provide supplementary information on the leading new varieties to help its members get the most out of growing them.

Maximising the potential of modern varieties was also the theme of independent fertiliser consultant Dr Ian Richards, who also looked at why such potential is not being realised.

“Cereal yields have stagnated over the past 12 years despite continuous improvements in yield potential through plant breeding. Inadequate supplies of phosphate, potash, sulphur or micronutrients have been proposed as possible reasons,” Dr Richards said.

Although research by bodies such as the Professional Agricultural Analysis Group shows that 90% of soil samples indicate there is scope for improvement, deficiencies in many nutrients are not sufficient to account for the shortfall in crop performance, he said.

Improvements in fertiliser spreading accuracy, achieved through “tray testing” can give a quick financial return, he said, but there is no “magic bullet” and farmers need to consider a range of factors including “getting the basics right”, attention to detail and learning from good records, including regular soil analysis.

Improvements in agronomy may be more important than ever if commodity prices continue to slide. After declining in 2012, global grain production is once again rising and prices have therefore fallen on international futures markets, he added.

But the picture is not altogether bleak, according to Charlotte Garbutt of Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) Market Intelligence.

Rapid exports of wheat from the European Union have, to some extent, helped support prices and so far there has been a good export trade in barley from the UK, following last season’s record harvest.

China’s appetite for oilseeds also continues to grow, with demand fuelled by state-supported high prices. China currently imports one million tonnes of soyabean each week.

“South America satisfies the increase in international demand for oilseed. UK oilseed rape prices are volatile but OSR looks likely to continue to remain competitive in rotations,” she said.

In the short term, the rebound in UK wheat quality, in contrast to the poor samples seen in 2012, puts the focus on feed wheat and maize/barley substitution.

Overall, does this mean a “return to normality in 2014”? she asked.