Farmer Focus – Philip Bradshaw

I ended my previous article noting the challenges ahead, but with some optimism for the season, and the forthcoming harvest. However, I had underestimated how exciting it was to get, and how much volatility we would come to enjoy!

Our crops continued to look well through the spring and early summer. The spring beans established nicely and grew quickly. Sometimes with all crops, it was a challenge to keep on top of treatment timings, especially when I spent some time away on off farm work. I managed to buy a lot of our inputs at the right time, but unfortunately, I had to buy some of our Nitrogen fertiliser at the higher prices. I offset this with some appropriate wheat sales, and while I can’t claim to have got everything right, we will have good averages on both input acquisition, and crop sales for harvest 2022.Thankfully, with our system fuel use is very low, and we have been reducing nitrogen use steadily for some years, which has given us the confidence to appropriately use even less for this harvest year.

The incredible summer weather we enjoyed did speed crop development, and our annual rogueing season at Whittlesey was a joy, with little in the way of blackgrass to be found. We even found time to have a couple of fantastic days at the Groundswell show, in a hired campervan, and enjoyed seeing lots of interesting speakers, meeting friends old and new, and the evening refreshments! Harvest for us started with the Winter Barley, and it was our best barley ever. The yields varied from 11t/ha on some heavier fields to 9t/ha on lighter land, so we ended up with an average of just 10t/ha over a weighbridge, despite a drought and seasonally reduced inputs.

Sadly though, the OSR which followed was less exciting. We drilled on two occasions last August, with rain forecast within days, that never came. As such, some areas were very thin. I wrote some off before the winter Astrokerb application, and this was re drilled with beans, but with hindsight I should have written a little more off. The average harvested yield was 2.56t/ha, which is half what we used to yield a few years ago, but there was too much thin crop pulling down the average. The price though is decent, and the input costs were low. The wheat was a much better story and was consistently decent across all farms. The farm at Newborough was all KWS Firefly, and this has averaged well over 10t/ha. At Whittlesey we achieved a similar average, but with some variation. The second wheat KWS Zyatt averaged 10t/ha which was pleasing and lifts the farm margin by reducing our area of less profitable break crops, and our first wheat KWS Extase and KWS Firefly averaged 11 t/ha.

With little storage on farm, and the early harvest pressures on the grain trade and central stores we had to wait to clear wheat before we could cut the beans, but the dry weather continued, and they were all done before the Bank Holiday. Sadly, the beans were a little disappointing. Last year we averaged almost 6t/ha across all the beans, and this year we are only just above half that. Those super-hot days that we enjoyed in July effectively killed most of the crop off, and we had very small beans. Overall, though, with most of the farm in wheat and barley, we had a good harvest, with no drying, and good prices so far – a memorable season. As usual, we did some on farm trials. Philip Wright, our friend, and consultant helped with trials on tyre pressure, and soil loosening with the paraplow. The tyre pressure trial was similar to last years, and was interesting, as we drilled in autumn 2021 in drier conditions than 2020. The result was that while there was a little difference between the low and medium pressure area compared to untrafficked land, there was still a more significant yield loss in the high pressure area.

The soil loosening trial gave interesting results. In field analysis through the season showed better biological activity and rooting in the paraplowed area, particularly where we also applied biological amendments, and this showed in yield assessments at harvest. On the paraplowed land there was a tiny gain with the amendment over that without. However, the unmoved land had a substantial yield penalty over the loosened land. Obviously these are not extensive replicated trials, but they do show that when required loosening is appropriate, and I will continue to add biological amendments expecting a cumulative effect over time. 

The final trial I did was with a field of KWS Extase. I decided after our N1 application on a whim to do a low input trial, so 2 ha of the 12 ha field had only the first N dose of 46kgN/ha as a liquid, and no more fertiliser, and I also reduced the already modest fungicide and PGR programme on the low input area. Again, this is a basic farm experiment, with little replication, but the results were interesting. The weighbridge calibrated yield monitor on the combine harvester gave an average full header yield of 12.24t/ha low input, against a 12.36t/ha for the control area which had normal treatment including 110kg/ha N as liquid. This surprised me, and may be a quirk of the season, but I will push lower still with N next year, particularly on the skirt fen soils. However, it was clear from the delivery results, that the low input area had lower proteins, and this will need to be considered in a milling wheat situation.

Unfortunately, the clover living mulch crop that we planted ahead of beans has failed. Like the OSR last August, the rain never came. I want to try it again and may try and under sow some in the spring. So, for next year what are our plans? The dry weather and soils post-harvest have ruled out planting OSR or clover here this year due to the risk associated with the dry conditions. I did plant about half of the planned catch/cover crops with a multi species blend. This was done with the GD disc drill rather than the Sabretine to try and preserve the moisture. Keeping living roots in the soil is an important part of the system for us, but in a dry season like this we need to react accordingly.

We are paraplowing the 20% of the farm at Whittlesey that wasn’t done last year, and this will be pressed to reconsolidate. Our home saved wheat seed has tested clean for disease, so it will be cleaned on farm and treated only with Tiros before drilling from mid-October.

Looking ahead we need to refine our system further and reduce artificial inputs when possible. The challenge though is achieving a balance between reducing inputs appropriately, while also maintaining a decent level of crop output to be profitable. The inflation in our costs, including last year’s rent rise, is substantial, and the risks associated with farming now are more significant than ever.