Flexibility cultivates sucess

In an industry where change is the only constant and resilience in the face of adversity is becoming more and more crucial to long-term sustainability, one inspiring young farmer in Darlington has found flexibility is the key to managing risk and maximising success
– with adjuvants playing a pivotal role in the strategy.

Farming 240ha in Winston, Darlington quiet days are few and far between for Luke Medd. Luke farms in partnership with his father, Alan and grandfather, Brian, operating a mixed farming system consisting of arable, grassland, beef, and sheep enterprises alongside a mid-tier countryside stewardship scheme, as well as land dedicated to research and development with various field-scale trials. “It’s a proper mixed farm, where the arable, beef and sheep enterprises need to work together, and as such the cropping is extremely diverse,” says Luke.

Diverse cropping

On the arable side of things, West Whorley Hill Farm boasts a 15-crop diverse rotation including wheat, barley, rye, oilseed rape and
triticale, with herbal leys, forage and silage crops also grown to support the 400 strong Wagyu beef herd and 400 head of sheep.

“Stubble turnips are grown as an overwinter cover to feed the sheep and forage crops are ensiled to fatten cattle over the winter months,” he explains. “We’re growing forage rye for the first time this year. It’s in the ground now and we’ll take it off in the spring ahead of the maize and other forage crops.”

The rye will be followed by forage maize in the spring and taken off in October, before winter wheat is sown. “As well as the feed value, the rye provides cover over the winter – I hate bare ground and I’m not keen on overwinter stubbles. Therefore, the forage rye is a great way to help improve soil structure and allows three crops in one field in one year.”

Prioritising soil health

The combination of diverse cropping and the livestock enterprises has huge soil health benefits and is an approach that Luke believes is fundamental for the sustainability of his business. “Fifty years ago it was ommonplace for sheep to be considered highly useful on arable farms. They support the rotation, help keep weeds and cereal pests at bay, and perhaps most importantly, the manure releases essential plant nutrients into the soil for the following crops.”

Over the winter months, Luke grazes the sheep on wheat and triticale – putting them on in mid-January and taking them off in March before the first fertiliser application is made. “Grazing the crop also forces additional rooting and tillering,” he adds.

Establishment trials

Soil health is also being prioritised through the approach to crop establishment with Luke part-way through a long-term trial to transition from a conventional plough-based system towards the end goal which is direct drilling of most crops. “This is crucial for the long-term sustainability of the farm – we’re demanding a lot from the soil, so I feel it’s important to repair it.”

Now into year three, one of the main focuses of the trial is to develop a greater understanding of what the soils are currently capable of and what can be done to further enhance the soils properties, explains Luke. “Organic matter levels are already very high and given the time it takes to build organic matter, its paramount that soil analysis is undertaken to allow these levels to be maintained.” To enable this analysis, Luke is working alongside his agronomist Robert Bowes and deploying Agrii’s Soil Resilience Strategy. “The electrical conductivity scanning
with Rhiza has enabled the trial to be set up in the field where there is no soil variation at all, so the only difference in the field is the cultivation type,” notes Rob.

Luke Medd, Partner, N Medd and Son, County Durham

And so far, so good, says Luke. “In the first year of trials, there was little difference in winter wheat and spring barley yields when the two establishment techniques were compared. In year two, the direct drilled winter barley and winter wheat actually outyielded the conventionally sown.”

With the year three winter oilseed rape and winter rye trial now drilled, while it’s too early to make conclusions on yield, Luke has noticed huge differences in ground conditions between the two plots. “We got hit pretty hard with Storm Babet in the autumn. There’s no way we would have been able to travel on the conventional fields, but could have on the direct-drilled plots, so as well as the potential yield benefits, direct drilling is already demonstrating greater ground resilience too.”

Crop protection strategy

Getting the establishment right is just one part of the resilience puzzle and Luke says having a carefully formulated chemistry programme
which balances crop protection with strategic usage is key. Both Luke and Rob keep a careful eye on disease and base fungicide applications on the circumstances in front of them, rather than sticking to the same prescribed programme every year. And to get the best out of inputs, Luke says including an adjuvant in with the tank-mix has proven to be a beneficial addition.

“Flexibility is key when it comes to crop protection, and that’s what Kantor gives us – extra flexibility when conditions challenge the performance of our programme.” Kantor is a multi-functional activator adjuvant from Interagro, designed to enhance compatibility in tank-mixes, control drift and improve both chemical coverage and penetration. It’s claimed to be the only plant protection tank-mix adjuvant with a builtin micro-emulsifying compatibility aid to ensure stability in the tank and enhances the performance of all products in the tank.

“We don’t use it everywhere, but it reduces the risk of products not working, and given the costs of inputs, it makes sense to get the most out of them,” explains Luke. Rob has been a big advocate for the use of the adjuvant. “On farm every operation is different – different sprayers, different products, different climatic conditions.

Regarding the crop protection programme, you can be as technical as you want with the best products in the tank, but if the application isn’t right, it doesn’t matter what’s in there – you’re not going to get the right result. Including adjuvant Kantor is all about mitigating the risks from external factors.”

Adding flexibility

The spring of 2023 was an example of where both disease and spray applications were tricky, adds Luke. “Conditions pointed to a high pressure septoria season, and we were conscious of varietal weaknesses in some of our varieties.

“T0 – comprising Sakura (tebuconazole, + bromuconazole), with magnesium and early season PGR – was applied on 3 April to take care of high yellow rust pressure, but come T1, the septoria pressure was high and ideally, I should have sprayed around 25 April. However, the weather didn’t come right and proved to be a huge challenge – delaying T1 by almost three weeks, meaning it didn’t go on until mid-May.

“In the end, T1 turned out to be a big mix of active ingredients and included Boogie Xpro (bixafen + prothioconazole + spiroxamine), Phoenix (folpet), magnesium and trace elements, and Adjust (CCC). As it was such a small application window, we decided to add Kantor to the tank to ensure everything would mix, work properly, and keep product on the plant by reducing drift.

“Not only does the Kantor influence the fungicides, but it also optimises the availability and uptake of the PGR and nutrition in the mix.
Even though it wasn’t windy when we did get on, the leaves were so wet. Therefore, having Kantor in there just gave us a bit of peace of
mind in terms of coverage and adhesion.”

Penetrant properties

The coverage and penetrant properties of Kantor also come into their own during autumn phoma fungicide sprays and sclerotinia flowering sprays. “Oilseed rape has such a waxy leaf, which can make penetration of protection products a challenge,” explains Rob. “With phoma control it’s crucial to maximise coverage – and therefore protection – across the leaf. But autumn is a difficult timing to get optimal fungicide coverage on the leaf as it’s often wet and already waxy. This is where we’ve found Kantor to be particularly useful as it reduces surface water tension on the leaf so the fungicide coverage and protection can be maximised.”

Turning focus to spring applications and while the team usually opt for a two-spray sclerotinia programme, the weather in 2023 was “way too risky” to assume that was feasible so timed one spray with Kantor in the mix to increase the efficiency and efficacy of the application on 13 May at midflowering, adds Rob. “As a result, we saw no sclerotinia.” Testament to their success, Luke was the proud winner of the NFU’s 2023
Durham Districts Crop Competition Cereal Class – Oilseed Rape. Luke concludes that as weather patterns seen in 2023 become more the ‘norm’, using partner products like adjuvants are going to be vital.

“Weather windows are tight, and that’s likely to continue so it’s crucial to reduce the risk of products not working as well as we need them to. We’re such a mixed, diverse farm that sometimes some jobs get neglected, so we need to increase product efficiency and effectiveness as there’s often such a small window for applications.

“We find ourselves constantly on the backfoot if we don’t get on at the right time, so we end up having to pile products into the tank which is not where anyone wants to be. Using an adjuvant just buys us a bit of flexibility and insurance to help keep us on the right track for success.”