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Blue Bags Grow Better Crops

NEW FERTILISER POLICY LIFTS MARGINS BY NEARLY £200/HA

An extra 1.44t/ha of winter barley produced using CF Fertiliser products compared to existing fertiliser practice in 2018 farm trials.

Using a True Granular Sulphur compound followed by straight Ammonium Nitrate (AN) produced an extra 1.44t/ha of winter barley compared to existing fertiliser practice in 2018 farm trials at MW Farming, near Bridgnorth, Shropshire.

Worth an extra £193/ha in margin over fertiliser costs (MOFC), the results have confirmed the business’s decision to move away from urea across its entire 648ha of arable production and set a benchmark that liquid fertilisers could not rival, says the business owner Matthew Williams.

"Every input we use has to make money and if it doesn’t, then it doesn’t justify a place in our system. I have to be able to see that everything we do has a sound financial basis and that’s particularly the case with fertiliser as it’s such a large part of our overall investment.”

Matthew Williams, MW Farming

 

“Every input we use has to make money and if it doesn’t, then it doesn’t justify a place in our system. I have to be able to see that everything we do has a sound financial basis and that’s particularly the case with fertiliser as it’s such a large part of our overall investment.”

When you realise Matthew started the business from a standing start just two years ago without any of his own land and putting his own house on the line as security, his views are easy to understand.

“These early years are critical. We’ve got no safety net and a single bad decision could really take its toll on us.”

So far things seem to be going well, however, with wheat yields averaging around 9.5t - 10t/ha and oilseed rape at 4.5 – 5.0t/ha despite the challenging conditions of last year.

About 320ha of the land is down to wheat, with around 200ha of oilseed rape and up to 120ha of winter barley – a typical rotation being two wheats followed by barley and then oilseed rape.

“We’ve stuck with oilseed rape – it’s a great break crop and we’ve had no significant problems with flea beetles. Blackgrass isn’t an issue for us either, but it’s something we’re always on the lookout for.”

Much of the land Matthew farms was taken on when his previous employer retired. CF DoubleTop (27N + 30SO3) was always used as a first dressing to address Sulphur requirements but this was then followed by urea as the main N source.

“With fertilisers being such a critical part of the business, it’s important to ensure we are using them as effectively as possible and whilst urea was seen as a low cost option, I wasn’t convinced it was performing sufficiently in terms of return on investment.”

Working with Ross Leadbeater of CF Fertilisers, it was decided to set up a trial to look at how nutrition efficiency could be improved.

BENEFIT OF CF N-MIN SOIL TEST

According to Ross Leadbeater the starting point was to gain insight into what N was already held in the soil before any application decisions could be made.

“A lot of organic manure in the form of sewage sludge has been used in the past and some of the land has been turned into arable use from livestock previously, so N reserves are likely to be pretty healthy but variable.

“The only way you can get an accurate picture of soil N is to carry out a CF N-Min test which measures Soil Mineral Nitrogen (SMN) but also includes Additionally Available Nitrogen (AAN).

“AAN is the Nitrogen that will be mineralised in the soil and become available to the plant as the growing season develops and this can be used to give a better picture of total Soil Nitrogen Supply (SNS) which in turn provides a better foundation for calculating bagged Nitrogen requirements.

“Without knowing this you can end up applying too much N which, as well as being a waste of money the crop is unlikely to be able to utilise it leading to potential environmental problems.

Whilst the CF N-Min system was already being used for both the wheat and oilseed rape crops being grown by Matthew, it was agreed to restrict the trial to a crop of winter barley to keep things simple, Ross recalls.

“On the field used for the trial we measured an SMN of 27kg N/ha and an AAN of 29kg N/ha which resulted in a total N-Min reserve of 56kg N/ha. This, combined with the N estimated to already be in the plant, resulted in an SNS of 94kg/ha N.

“CF N-Calc then determined a rate of 190kg N/ha would be required in addition to achieve a yield of around 9t/ha.”

The field was divided in two with all plots receiving 27kg N/ha and 30kg SO3/ha  from a first application of DoubleTop but then half the plots would receive their subsequent Nitrogen as Nitram (34.5% N) and the other half as straight urea, he explains.

“All plots received the same additional 163kg N/ha to make up the full 190kg N/ha but the plots receiving the DoubleTop/Nitram combination produced 9.74t/ha whilst the DoubleTop/urea one achieved 8.3t/ha – 1.44t/ha less.

PRACTICAL APPLICATION & IMPROVED MARGINS

“When you start looking at the financials, it gets even more interesting. Whilst the Nitram cost £220/t and the urea £200/t, the extra expenditure more than paid off with an increase in margin of £193/ha – £1431/ha as opposed £1239/ha – in favour of Nitram.

“That’s a 13% increase overall, which if you achieved similar benefits across all the land Matthew farms would be worth nearly £120,000.

“Whilst in reality it’s unlikely you would see this, we are recording SNS levels ranging from 65 – 130kg N/ha  across the land so there is a lot of potential to fine-tune efficiency of fertiliser use.”

Matthew says the results were a real eye opener.

“The thing that amazed me the most was that we changed nothing other than the source of Nitrogen for our final fertiliser applications – everything else was the same.

“I know the dry year would have favoured the AN, but the scale of the difference was startling. Even the combine driver commented how much fuller the crops felt on those that had the Nitram applied– the difference was that noticeable.”

All crops farmed by Matthew now get their first application as DoubleTop with all subsequent N applications from Nitram. A new 24.0m Kuhn Axis spreader with section control and variable rate capability has just been purchased and he doesn’t see fertiliser policy changing any time soon.

“We’ve moved on from urea and have considered liquid fertilisers in the past but they don’t really fit in with our policy of staying flexible. We can spray and spread fertiliser at the same time and we don’t put any undue pressure on the sprayer.

“I can cover up to 200ha of fertiliser spreading in a day by myself and I just wouldn’t be able to get near that work rate with liquid fertilisers. Plus I’d have to have another guy working with me with a bowser due to our spread of land.

“I can’t see how we would get better performance from them either in terms of higher yields or better cost effectiveness.”

As for the future, not content with the size of the business he has built up in just three years, Matthew is always on the lookout for more land to add whether that be renting or stubble to stubble contract farming.

“I’ve got a combine sitting in the shed that costs me the same to own whether I combine 1ha or 1000ha so I might as well keep it busy.”