Eleven tonne plus yields and rising margins from better fertiliser management are convincing one Lancashire producer that wheat is more than just a useful break crop.

Careful Nitrogen management has lifted wheat yields by 0.7t/ha and added £120/ha to margin over fertiliser on the high output enterprise of Darren Baxter at Highbrow Farm near Southport in Lancashire.

Key to the success in increasing yields from around 10.5t/ha to 11.2t/ha has been accurate assessment of soil nitrogen reserves and adjusting Nitrogen inputs to take account of existing fertility levels. “The relationship between cereals and the other crops on our farm and how we can make this work better to retain soil fertility and reduce cultivations whilst maximising production, is something we are increasingly focusing on,” Darren explains. “With a large proportion of vegetables in the rotation, cereals have largely been regarded as a break-crop, but we’re finding that if we pay them the same attention to detail as we do to our high-value brassica and potato crops, not only do they make more money in their own right, they have a significant impact on what follows them.”

Current cropping is based around 120ha of winter wheat, 20ha of spring barley, up to 160ha of cabbages, 32ha of sprouts and 140ha of potatoes. With a coastal location and a variety of soil types ranging from sand to reclaimed marsh soil and pure moss combined with often high rainfall, ground conditions and weather play a large part in determining rotations. “In 2016 we had virtually all our cereals in by mid September, but last year we had only managed around 40ha by the end of the year. “Ideally the cereals follow cabbages ahead of potatoes, but on later wet land following winter cabbage, we’ll put the potatoes in ahead of the cereals because we’ll get better drainage for the following cabbage crop.”

All wheat is grown as feed wheat with the variety JB Diego being the mainstay in recent years although the new variety Shabras is being tried this year, Darren says. “Our general farm policy is to grow for value but when it comes to wheat, we don’t really have the storage and facilities to keep some for milling and the rest for feed. We’re vegetable farmers still learning how to get the best out of cereals really.”

That said they consistently achieve yields over 10.0t/ha and see arable cropping playing an increasing role on the farm in the future. Current fertiliser practice has been to apply 220kg N/ha to all the wheat with Sulphur in the form of CF DoubleTop (27N 30S03) being added in recent years as the final one of the three applications. Although initially brought in to discuss Sulphur options, CF arable agronomist Allison Grundy has since been working with Darren to improve efficiency of Nitrogen use across the farm with a particular focus on the role of the cereals. “The fairly intensive vegetable production in the rotation means there is a lot of inherent nutrition in the system so that is the starting point for rationalising the Nitrogen needs of the cereal crops,” she explains. “For the last two years, we’ve used the CF N-programme including the patented N-Min soil test rather than just standard Nitrogen tests, so we can establish a baseline for what N is in the soil and the plants and make more accurate application recommendations from there.”

Darren Baxter and CF Agronomist Allison Grundy

In trials across three neighbouring fields last year, the CF N-Min test showed soil nitrogen reserves ranged from 53 – 59kg N/ha with that in the crops being between 60 and 67.5kg N/ha – the plants with higher numbers of tillers containing more N than the crops with less growth. Total soil nitrogen supply (SNS) for the more developed crops (soil Nitrogen reserve plus Crop N) was about 126kg N/ha and about 113kg N/ha for the less developed ones.

Using CF N-Calc to determine the fertiliser requirement, an additional 175kg N/ha was calculated to be needed to produce a yield of 10.0t/ha whilst for a 12t/ha yield it was 197kg N/ha, as opposed to the farm rate of 220kg N/ha. All the plots received 185kg/ha of DoubleTop as a first application delivering 56kg S03/ha and 50kg N/ha with the balance made up in subsequent applications.

Over all plots, the CF N-programme produced an average yield of 11.2 t/ha with an average margin over fertiliser costs (MOFC) of £1515/ha compared to 10.5t/ha and £1395/ha respectively for the standard farm practice. “As the results show, it is important to understand the starting point for Nitrogen applications, especially in varied rotations with widely differing crop types,” Allison Grundy points out. “On average, we added 0.7t/ha to yield and £120/ha to MOFC over existing farm practice. “The particular issue here is to understand levels of Nitrogen still available from previous crops and not over-apply in the following cereals so that cost inefficiencies and potential environmental issues are avoided.”

For Darren, the potential to manage Nitrogen better to avoid forward crop problems in the spring is important too. “We can walk in to lodging problems on the better soils and it’s sometimes difficult to get on with the PGRs in time. “It’s an inherent issue with growing high value vegetable crops that you tend to think in terms of investing enough in the crop, but with cereals it’s important to be a bit more circumspect sometimes – especially when it comes to Nitrogen.”

Whilst the extra £120/ha margin indicated by the trials is important in maintaining the overall profitability of the business, the benefits of well-managed arable crops in the rotation are probably of greater worth, he says.“The cereals definitely help hold nutrition in the soil better - in the good soils they’re probably picking up Nitrogen that’s over 2.0m deep which would otherwise be unavailable to crops.”

With vegetable prices falling, the arable crop area has increased over the last four years and the benefits of this are clear, he adds.“We definitely see higher yields of cabbage following cereals and have seen a marked improvement in soil structure since growing them not to mention a considerable reduction in the amount of cultivations we need to do across the farm.

“By understanding the nutritional needs of arable crops better and being able to lift yields and margins accordingly, not only are they contributing more to our overall management, they’re also making a considerable profit in their own right.”

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