Making the switch has simplified management, reduced soil damage and improved crop health at West Whorley Hill Farm, near Darlington, in Co. Durham.
Greater flexibility of timings and even distribution of nutrients have contributed to noticeably more consistent crop growth since the farm’s contractor-applied liquid fertiliser approach was replaced with high quality solid fertiliser, says owner Alan Medd.
“We had been using liquid fertiliser for over 15 years in the belief that it was a lower cost option than using good quality solids but when we looked into this in greater detail last year, we realised this was no longer the case. The costs per unit of N were pretty much identical but when you added in the very real benefits of using an Ammonium Nitrate-based compound, we realised it was time to consider making a change.”
With around 90ha of cereals in total and a rotation of winter barley, triticale and wheat, the business’s aim is to keep things simple without compromising crop performance, he says.
“We’re targeting wheat yields of 10.0t/ha plus with varieties like Belepi, Barrel, Dunston and Gravity with around 40ha down to continuous wheat and although a lot of people may disagree with this, it works for us.
“We get the yields we want and don’t have any take-all or volunteers from previous crops so I don’t see any need to change. We’re probably going to be ploughing less in favour of more minimum tillage in the future, but that’s about it.”
The decision to use liquid fertiliser was taken as part of this desire to keep things simple, he says.
“We thought it would be cheaper and, as we would be using a contractor, it would free up a bit more time for doing other things.”
But the obvious damage the heavy self-propelled equipment was doing to the land was always concerning with the early applications being particularly worrying, he recalls.
“We would have these large 4000 litre sprayers churning up the soil in often very wet conditions at the beginning of March and you could see the damage they were doing. It became such a problem that we stopped the first liquid application and replaced it with a solid blended fertiliser applied through a spreader, but we were never really happy with the performance of this.”
Scorch has also been a problem with the liquid fertiliser at fairly frequent intervals, but it was 2017 when things really came to a head, Alan says.
“We’d had visible scorch at various times over the years and it was always a concern but in 2017 it was a real problem to such an extent that we had to delay our spray programme as the crop was under such stress from damaged leaves.
“We had a period of fairly windy weather prior to the application and we wondered whether this had caused some of the protective wax to be stripped of the leaves, but whatever the cause, it confirmed our decision to move back to a solid fertiliser”
MAKING THE CHANGE
Alan decided to talk to his ACT representative Jo Holmes and they started to look at some options.
“We worked out that in pure cost terms there was very little to choose between a unit of N from liquids or Ammonium Nitrate,” Jo says. “We also realised that if we moved away from liquids we could simplify applications considerably, too.”
“Alan had already replaced the first liquid application with a Sulphur-containing blend due to potential soil damage from the heavy trailed sprayers and was using this again as a final dressing to avoid the risk of scorch.
“He was also applying P and K in the autumn so that made a total of three passes being carried out by himself in addition to the contractor’s liquid application.”
It was decided to use an ‘all in one’ spring–applied compound fertiliser, CF PremierCrop Sulphur (20N 8P 12K + 7SO3) as this would make it possible to apply the crops full N requirement at the same time as all the P, K and S needs in the same three passes Alan was already using.
As well as making management simpler, it would also help split the application of nutrients to make them more available to the plants, Jo says.
“Sulphur is very mobile in the soil and can leach through the soil profile so it is always advisable to split the requirement in to at least two applications.
“It’s a similar situation with P and K and it is now widely accepted that applying these nutrients when the plant is growing vigorously and at a time it can utilise them fully is much better than putting them on in the autumn.”
Although some digestate from a local AD plant and muck from the farm’s 100 sucklers and 160-strong Wagyu beef enterprise is used, the bulk of the nutrition comes from inorganic sources, Alan Medd explains.
“We’re not in an NVZ and tend to follow RB209 recommendations so we’re aiming to put 200kg/ha N on the wheat from the bag. With the PremierCrop Sulphur at this application rate we’re also getting 80kg/ha P, 120kg/ha K and 70kg/ha SO3 so it works really well for us without any further applications of straights of other N sources required.”
BLUE BAGS ACT WHEN YOU NEED THEM MOST
Despite 2018 not being the best year to assess the difference in performance of the two fertiliser approaches, Alan says the effect of the True Granular Compound was immediately noticeable.
“The crops looked tremendous soon after application. They were greener, more even and we were really pleased. Then we got to June, it just stopped raining and one of the driest summers I can remember set in.
“That said, our wheat still averaged 7.5 to 8.5t/ha and I am pretty sure this wouldn’t have been the case if we had stuck with the liquid fertilisers.
“Putting a liquid on to crops already under stress from the drought would have just finished them off I think, so in hindsight it probably was the right year to make the change.”
Production benefits aside, the solid compound has other advantages, he points out.
“We can put it on whenever we feel the time is right, rather than when the contractor has a window, and we can stop if the weather closes in or we have something else to do. It’s a much more flexible approach.
“We’re using a Kuhn twin disc machine to spread to 24.0m and the spread is much more even and consistent than with the blend we were using. It was very variable before but now we know exactly what we’re putting on.
“Plus it’s no more work than I was doing before with the three passes anyway, so all in all it’s been a great result. I’m just looking forward to a better year weather-wise in 2019 so we can really see the full benefits of it.”