"Little and often" crop nutrition at Wantage Monitor Farm

8Mar2016

Julian Gold, farm manager for the Hendred Estate in Oxfordshire, thinks it’s important to deliver what he terms ‘holistic crop nutrition’. He hopes that the extra cost of more applications, but smaller amounts at each stage, will lead to sustained yield improvements across the estate.

It’s a sentiment that’s balanced by his commitment and determination to make a ‘good, acceptable’ profit level for the farm’s owners. “We mustn’t ‘rob the deposit account,” he says. “I’m trying to improve the soil while making a profit. To build sustainability and resilience for the future, we need stability – a steady, continuous, robust business, well-managed, trying to iron out the peaks and troughs.”

Spring on an arable farm brings nutrition into sharp focus. Hendred’s no different, but Julian has a different perspective. “I feel that the whole philosophy of growing the crop needs to integrate nutrition and disease control. Plan nutrition correctly and I think it’s possible to grow crops that need fewer inputs.

“I’m painfully aware that all our inputs, especially fertiliser, are based on fossil fuels, which means they’re environmentally unfriendly, they’re going to run out and they’re going to get expensive.” Using them with maximum efficiency is one of Julian’s foremost objectives – and he’s bought into the emerging concept of Nitrogen Use Efficiency. It also gives him the opportunity to look ahead, to the future, as he describes it, so he understands how to ‘ratchet up’ his efficiency when inputs become more expensive and/or crop prices are low.

It was for similar reasons that he volunteered as an AHDB Monitor Farm. “I’d realised it was very easy to settle into a comfort zone, getting used to doing the same thing because it works. But I’d also realised that the business had reached a point where it needed a little shove, to move it forwards.

“I thought being a Monitor Farmer would achieve that, and previous experience of farmer-to-farmer meetings was very useful. The non-commercial environment is a great way to share knowledge and help to drive everyone’s business forward.”

Spring 2016 will not be easy, he admits. A mild winter and lush forward crops present a potential perfect storm as far as disease is concerned, although Julian notes, for this part of the country at least, that the fairly average rainfall, October-January, has not made things any worse. Against that, however, is the continuing depression of commodity prices – forward prices are below the cost of production – although there’s an upside in this year’s nitrogen price of 67p/kg, against 76p 12 months ago.

The lower nitrogen price provides Julian with an added incentive to follow his nutrition mantra of ‘little and often’, matching applications with crop uptake. He uses a human analogy: if you know your calorie requirement for a week, are you better off from a single ‘hit’ of several takeaways together or a balanced, more varied diet through the week?

“Nutrition is about more than nitrogen, with so many limiting factors in play. Take potash, for example. At potash index 0, nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) is 49 per cent. At an index of 2, the NUE leaps to 79 per cent. Sulphur, conversely, costs just 6p/kg – but if the crop can’t get enough, you’ll waste nitrogen – plants need both to build protein.”

Julian’s no fan of Soil Mineral Nitrogen tests. “They always seem to return between 60 and 80; I’m not sure of their value in a normal arable rotation that is not using organic manures. I’d be more interested in knowing what effect soil biology has on crop nutrition, and how we can encourage that activity, to access more nutrients from the soil and therefore reduce fertiliser spend.” He is, however, conducting trials with a real-time crop sensor to assess whether it’s a cost effective way of varying N rates according to crop biomass and yield potential.

Julian believes the link between nutrition and disease requires better insight, although evolving ideas about crop canopies and the introduction of newer fungicides makes it all the more difficult to understand. “Ideas of what makes the optimum canopy structure seem to keep changing over time. Big canopies used to be the norm, but these tended to get more disease, fall over and utilise sunlight inefficiently because light couldn’t penetrate the canopy, and respiration rates were high.

“Now it seems we’re back to high plant density again, whether that’s because of SDHIs, changing crop physiology, stiffer varieties or better PGRs or a combination, we don’t really know.”

Julian’s discussion of his thoughts, in an honest and open manner, resounded well with the Monitor Farm meeting attendees, who were quick to add their points of view and ask questions.

Tim May, who operates a 2,500 acre mixed arable and sheep enterprise at Kingsclere Estates, was at his first Monitor Farm meeting, and he was impressed by the open nature. “In the past, some of the arable groups just haven’t been as willing to share ideas and discuss – in contrast to the sheep and grassland discussion groups I’m used to attending. It’s been fascinating to discuss the impact of inputs on the health of the crop and the soil – Julian and I clearly share some thinking.  I can see the value in these meetings and I’m even potentially thinking about being a host. We’ve got some new and interesting trials, which it would be good to share in the same way.”

Farmers interested in attending the next Monitor Farm meeting at Wantage on 14 June, should contact the South East Regional Manager, Paul Hill, on paul.hill@ahdb.org.uk

From the AHDB website