Monitor Farm launch

Now the smell of BBQ, coffee and dust in the workshop has settled I thought I would sum up the launch from my side of the fence.  We had a great turn out for the launch, 52 growers in total and a few tag-a-longs made up of agronomists, machinery dealers and other industry representatives. Thank you for everyone who came and braved the weather. I hope you found it really positive and interesting.

I started off by setting the scene of how my own farming development had adapted and changed through my relatively short farming career. I chose to look in detail at my previous three winter wheat crops on the same field, then my previous three years of highest yielding oilseed rape fields and our general business approach to certain areas.


I pulled together information for one field over its previous three wheat crops with yield maps to emphasise my growing development. The 2011 crop of second wheat Glasgow showed huge variation in yield, with a field average of 9.6t/ha over 36ha. The 2014 crop of second wheat Horatio averaged 11.7t/ha and the variation of highest spot to lowest spot was a quarter of what it was in 2011. Okay, weather is the biggest factor that we cannot control and these exercises need to be taken with a pinch of salt; however as I started looking back at the agronomy decisions that I had taken, there was a really interesting development or pattern that could be seen. The table below highlights the change and adaption of my farming techniques through these three wheat harvests. (N.B. 2012 OSR)

Brian Barkerblog Dec 14

I have always been someone who questions routine practices and likes to play around and trial new ideas. This is just who I am: I like to question myself and so I also identified the following points that I am now asking myself. These are areas that may come up in future Monitor Farm meetings as a group. The points are as follows:

  • Role of seed treatments; Redigo Deter, trace elements, take-off
  • Micronutrient feed throughout year
  • Reduced cultivations (direct drilling?, scratch the surface 50mm, plough depth)
  • Variable rate applications; N, P&K, seed rates
  • Crop nutrition; late N applications, fertiliser blends, fertiliser placement
  • Pre-harvest desiccation
  • Black-grass prevention
  • Headland yield improvements; compaction, seed rate, pests?

The oilseed rape was a similar story, however it was much more erratic with yield ranges from high to low much more concerning. I described oilseed rape as ‘oilseed risk’: many growers were finding that costs and risk for growing the crop was not being reflected in the gross margin return. When you factor in the risk and extra management of hail at harvest, chasing pigeons all winter, flea beetle without seed dressing and the unseen black-grass problem (we miss it but know it happens as our dirtiest fields always follow OSR) – with all this risk and un-added cost the final margin is very low. Myself and several in the room were losing the faith that this was a good crop to concentrate on, but, then again, what are the options?

These were the points that I had highlighted as areas that I want to improve my knowledge of:

  • Seed rates, drilling date, variety choice
  • Micronutrient feed throughout year
  • Establishment:  drilling or broadcast
  • Variable rate applications: N, seed
  • Crop nutrition: late N applications, fertiliser blends, fertiliser placement
  • Black-grass prevention
  • Headland yield improvements
  • Pest threshold understanding
  • Pest prevention

The business and other crops had a brief introduction but many of the elements that  I had spoken about were also reflected in the two main crops. This was basically me taking my farming decision clothes off in public: the attending farmers were free to ask questions but I wanted it to be a two way street for knowledge exchange.

I wanted something from them.

So this is where it got interesting. I had organised a computer program which allowed real time voting. Wireless clickers were given to everyone and I had prepared a series of questions relating to the topics I had discussed. We then as a group saw the graphs appear real time once the question had been explained by me.  These are again results that you need to take with a pinch of salt but it gave a real insight into what people were thinking about the subject. I have picked out a few results that I thought were interesting.

  • 52% reckon that they were just about winning the battle against black-grass
  • 34% said that disease control gave them their biggest WW yield return, whereas only 20% said nutrition gave them their biggest yield return.
  • Only 15% growers used tissue analysis to monitor crop health on a regular basis, over 50% used it when symptoms were seen and 22% didn’t see the need.
  • 33% saw micronutrients as being vital to yield development.
  • 62% tried to maintain a soil pH of between 6 and 7.
  • 30% of growers were using RTK level of guidance
  • 60% of growers had three or four years between OSR crops in their rotation.
  • 60% picked OSR variety on yield alone.
  • 50% established OSR by band sowing behind a subsoil leg.
  • 40% wanted to see fertiliser placement at sowing either first hand in field or as a harvest trial result.
  • 33% wanted to improve their OSR marketing for next year, 23% wanted to improve nutrition in OSR and 25% wanted to improve pest management.
  • 60% didn’t know how they would use results from soil conductivity.
  • 22% still kept hand written crop records.
  • 52% said molluscs were their most prolific pests on all crops.
  • 5% used Twitter on a daily basis for farming information.


After a superb lunch and a quick wander around the farmyard and building we held group exercises where all the growers split into small groups to discuss points I had highlighted relating to business management, wheat production and OSR production. All this information is to be used to create the programme for the Monitor Farm group going forward. Some great discussion and feedback has come out of the day and now my steering group and I have the task of pulling together a series of meetings that will be both informative and helpful for as many people as possible going forward.

Stowmarket Launch

More information will follow about winter events and the program. Again thanks to those who came to the launch. If you want to get involved then please contact Tim Isaac, our AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds Regional Manager.

Have a fun festive season and I hope to see you at the first meeting on Friday 9 January 2015.



David Blacker farms around 890ha on a mix of family-owned, rented and stubble to stubble contracts just north of York. He is keen to drive down costs, and has recently bought a four metre strip-till drill which has led to a new rotation for 2014/15 - wheat, oilseed rape, wheat and spring beans. David grows feed wheat, chops all his straw and is using cover crops to improve soil structure and add organic matter to fields before spring beans. David is particularly interested in precision farming and improving his soil organic matter and structure, and is running his own trial to incorporate compost to raise the soil organic matter. He is also planning to re-locate his farm yard, including his chemical store which will include a bio-bed type spray washings system and rain water harvesting.