Harvest review

With travels on hold for the moment, it was harvest that took priority recently. We hold some generally excellent performances all round and everything mostly progressed smoothly, with minimal drier use, although frustratingly we did get rained off seven times out of nine attempts at cutting wheat on the home block before we got completed!

I have always enjoyed having trials on farm as it allows us to see what works under local conditions and we had two good trials this year, a nutrition based trial linked to fungicide programmes and a straight fungicide trial where I had some input on designing the programmes.

The nutrition one was fascinating, placed in an early November drilled wheat (because of black-grass control). The crop was reasonably easy to keep clean, however the untreated crop was down to 6.3 t/ha in places, but responses to the programmes took this up to 12.7 t/ha.  It is rare to see responses of this magnitude and just goes to illustrate how fungicide programmes can be like an insurance policy, with some years paying more back than others.  But there were some very interesting response with phosphites in synergy with the fungicide programmes and fascinatingly some of the best responses weren’t with the premium choice fungicide products.

The nutrition trial also highlighted that nitrogen rates and timings with higher doses and different foliar products going on later than we would traditionally do, can have a very positive effect on yield as well.

Combining fungicide plot

Above:  Combining fungicide plot trials

One of the reasons I wanted to look more closely at direct drilling for my scholarship was brought home to me again by a simple trial we conducted on farm.  We had two fields of second wheat, planted at the same time, one was ploughed and the other direct drilled with the farm’s hybrid drill.  Not for the first time the direct drilled second wheat was nearly 2 tonnes per hectare better performance wise. It is certainly a real bonus with prices where they are and we are improving our soils at the same time.

The level and severity of cabbage stem flea beetle damage in our oil seed rape has varied considerably, but it has been dependant upon the location and intriguingly, the recent cultivation history.  Across the four blocks which have all had insecticides, some more times than others, there seems to be an almost direct correlation between rotational and cultivation history, I’m sure location is possibly also a factor, but we have noticed some stark differences.

On one of the blocks which has had ploughing more regularly in recent history, due to land being rented out for potatoes or onions, we have seen increased flea beetle damage compared to our other blocks and most notably the home block which has been under shallow tillage progressing to direct drilling in recent seasons.

This made me think back to the importance of soil biology and the role of beneficial insects and I cast my mind back to June when I met Dwayne Beck in South Dakota, who has been no-tilling for over 20 years and claims he hasn’t used an insecticide for the last 12 of those.

It illustrated to me that perhaps the value of building soil biology clearly helps the build-up of natural predators as an added bonus alongside insecticides.


Above:  OSR planting in good conditions

I can’t see us never using insecticides, but certainly it would seem that reduced tillage/direct drilling has even more benefits to the soil than disturbing the process through deep cultivations or ploughing.

Certainly growing OSR in future without effective insecticidal seed dressings looks like a huge challenge and with commodity prices where they are currently positioned, we as growers are walking a tightrope of viability.

I have been pleased how our soils have improved over the years and they are certainly more friable now than they used to be and as all good soils should, it smells good too.  This was in stark contrast to a field that had recently been ploughed where blackgrass patches had been sprayed out in the previous crop – this just magnified the importance of having a crop, be it commercial or a cover crop growing as often as you can.  The ground was structureless, lifeless and certainly didn’t smell great either. As the saying goes, pictures speak louder than words:

Soil With No Structure

Above: Soil with no structure, below good structure from years of low tillage and direct drilling at home.

Good Structure From Years Of Low Tillage And Direct Drilling

Fellow 2013 Scholar Tom Sewell’s Nuffield report has recently been published and for anyone wanting to understand why direct drilling can be beneficial and why it has a significant role to play in the future really should have a read of his excellent report on www.nuffieldscholar.org

My last rounds of trips have recently been booked and I shall be heading back to Australia and New Zealand in November, visiting firstly AHRI (the Australian Herbicide Resistance Initiative) in Perth to look at how they have managed resistant weeds under no-tillage.  Then my last Nuffield trip will be to Brazil and Argentina in January and February which I am certainly looking forward to.

Next time: Hopefully some reports on the last of the autumn workload!



Russell McKenzie farms 750ha on predominantly heavy clay on the border between Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire. He grows seed on contract as well as soft and feed wheat, and his usual rotation is wheat, OSR and spring beans. A Nuffield Scholar, Russ has been researching direct drilling in extreme weather in 2013 and 2014.