Harvest 2016 and industry innovation

Biog: Russ farms 995ha, spread over 17 miles and five units, between Cambs and Beds. He grows predominantly first wheats (mostly for seed) with winter barley, oilseed rape, spring beans and spring barley. He describes himself as not form a farming family, but as having loved everything about farming since a very young age, starting with a harvest job on a local farm when he was 13. He graduated from Writtle College with a BSc in Agriculture and then took on a trainee manager’s position with Albanwise Farming in Norfolk. Russ is BASIS and FACTS qualified and is a partner in his wife’s family farming business which he jointly manages along with John Sheard Farms. His recent Nuffield Farming scholarship, sponsored by AHDB, investigated how the best no-till practitioners across the world manage to make the system work in both the wettest and driest of conditions which took him to Australia, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, USA, Brazil and Argentina. He is also an AHDB Monitor Farm.

Title: Harvest 2016 and industry innovation
It’s been an easy harvest, and whilst some performances have been down. We’ve combined 5,000+ tonnes of grain and not had to dry any of it, which means it’s been a welcome, cheap harvest.

Our breakeven for wheat is £117/t; at market prices of £120-130/t, there’s a bit of margin; at the current November futures price of £116/t, there is none. Added to this, milling wheat supply is strong, because of the large areas of Skyfall and the spec is good. Millers know this and it has dented premiums.

In the immediate future, prices need to rise and the industry needs to continue to innovate.

Farmers talk to each other and it fuels our hunger to learn and to get more from the equipment we are using. In the UK we are living in an innovative environment and seeing lots of farmers trying new ideas without the help of a guide book. We’re seeing this particularly in direct drilling and the use of cover crops.

The innovation that has most benefited my farming operation is the introduction of variable seed rates. My catalyst was the variation I saw in one field drilled at a uniform seed rate, where the soils were heavier, the plant count was too low resulting in a 1.75t/ha yield penalty.

Since we’ve introduced Soilquest variable rate scanning and adapted seed rates to field zones, our yields are higher and more consistent.

However, success can sometimes be hard won. I get frustrated that different implements cannot talk to one another; it is always the fault of the other manufacturer!

Crop varietal development is another innovation worthy of mention. We’ve seen some remarkable yield jumps and improvements in disease packages, particularly in oilseed rape. Plus, traits like pod shatter resistance have delivered valuable risk mitigation, particularly when bad weather hits nearly ripe crops.

R&D is vital for our future and here, large organisations cannot be as nimble as farmers, nor is it easy for them to take the trial and error approach possible on-farm; by the time their projects are planned and budgets agreed, the findings are two years out of date.

Work conducted by organisations like AHDB as very valuable. However, we could learn a lot from Brazil’s agricultural research body, Embrapa, where there is no disconnect between them and farmers; they are right on the pulse of what research is valuable and how its communicated.

Looking to the future, the primary focus for advancing innovation needs to be in the understanding and management of soil health. A lot of brilliant soil scientists have recently retired and it’s a huge loss because we need to build a deeper understanding about our soils.

Sarah Murray

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