Sowing the seeds of success: Beal Farm shares its secrets

Berwick-upon-Tweed farmer Rod Smith discusses the factors that have influenced his impressive yields of wheat

Rod Smith of Beal Farm with agronomist, Eric Horsburgh
Rod Smith of Beal Farm with agronomist, Eric Horsburgh

A North East farmer has offered advice on gaining maximum yields through a quality seed wheat growing recipe, fine tuned over the past five years.

Rod Smith farms with a skilled team at Beal Farm near Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland. This year, across their 230 ha of first and second wheats, they averaged almost 12t/ha, with seed crops of Leeds after vining peas delivering particularly well.

One central 14 ha field block, in fact, Beal Farm delivered 17 t/ha – a performance that would have smashed New Zealand’s 15.6 t/ha world record had it been verified.

“Yield is the key to profitability and we know our system can deliver really big yields, so we and our Agrii agronomist, Eric Horsburgh have always been keen to push for them,” said Mr Smith, who farms with his father James and wife, Vicky.

“Our first wheats after peas generally do the best part of 5t/acre (12 t/ha). Seven years ago we brought in over 6t/acre (15 t/ha) from a field of Viscount, with a 10-15 acre block doing over 7.5t/acre (19t/ha). And within this year’s top-performing block of Leeds, we recorded spikes of 8.5t/acre (21t/ha) across 4 ha. This certainly took some combining even with our high capacity, twin rotor New Holland.

“Soil mapping and variable rate P & K have really helped cut field variations and improve our overall performance in recent years, as has the agronomic discipline of growing for quality seed markets.

“It certainly focuses the mind on first-class husbandry throughout the crop’s life and across the rotation.”

As well as the attractive premium, the value of quality seed wheat growing is clear in the performance of the main Masterseeds crop of Leeds grown at Beal Farm last season.

The 28 ha field averaged 12.3 t/ha for a total input cost of around £600. At a feed wheat price of £120/t, this represents a gross margin of more than £1000/ha before accounting for any extra value from the timely use of Agrii marketing tools.

“As usual, we didn’t stint on inputs with this crop,” said Mr Horsburgh. “But we only used what was needed on a thoroughly prescriptive basis. Thankfully, grass weeds aren’t a major problem here so we only employed a modest autumn herbicide programme targeted primarily at AMG, plus a timely late spring application of fluroxypyr to deal with cleavers, in particular.

“Disease control and plant growth regulation were, however, major challenges in a growthy season with almost no winter to speak of. So our spring and summer spray programme was pretty intensive, amounting to six fungicide and four PGR applications.

“We chose Leeds for its particular northern-yielding abilities at the top of the soft Group 4 tree. However, it isn’t the most yellow rust resistant variety and mid-September sowing left it fairly exposed in a mild winter, with so much of the disease around locally well before Christmas. Under these circumstances, the fluquinconazole seed dressing we employed at T(-1) proved invaluable in holding the infections well at bay through to the spring.”

The team started their spring spray programme with fenpropimorph in early March to tackle mildew, adding the early PGR, Meteor, together with Nutriphite PGA, to encourage tillering and rooting.

This was followed by a triazole-based T0 mix plus a second PGR and foliar manganese, copper and zinc, at the end of the month.

A robust combination of SDHI, strobilurin and triazole, plus the main PGR, was applied at T1 in late April, a final PGR with foliar potassium going on in early May and an SDHI, triazole and folpet T2 mix in mid-May with extra foliar magnesium.

“We were intending to complete the programme with a mixed triazole T3 ear wash in early June but, with the weather becoming so changeable, we added an extra early July dose of tebuconazole as insurance against the fusarium we need to keep out of seed crops at all costs,” Horsburgh added.

“Four PGRs may seem a little excessive.

“However, this ‘little and often’ approach ensured we kept the variety standing well despite the storms that are a fact of life on the exposed site, 240 kg/ha of applied N and relatively high N-Mins courtesy of the heavy ground and preceding pea crop. As well as nice clean leaves and stems through to maturity, the combination of variety and agronomy also gave us ear counts of almost 1000 per m2 in June to set up a really good crop.”

Sufficient soil care has also been a vital ingredient in Beal Farm’s Masterseeds growing success.

The relatively simple farm rotation – vining peas, two wheats, spring barley and two wheats before going back to peas – enables the team to plough every three years between successive min-tillings ahead of the wheats.

“This means we work our ground at different depths on a regular basis to cycle nutrients, prevent cultivation pans and effectively incorporate the 500t of muck we bring in each year in a barley straw swap with neighbours,” Mr Smith pointed out.

“Peas give us a fantastic fertility bonus too as well as a nice clean and early first wheat entry. And we chop and incorporate most of our wheat straw as part of our determined effort to build organic matter and improve soil structure.

“Effective sub-soiling with our Sumo is essential on our heavy ground, as is the patience to only work it when conditions are right. At the same time, Alan Fairbairn, Stephen Pringle, Stuart Ord and I do everything we can to avoid compaction with the way we set up and operate every single piece of machinery.

“Tracks on the combine really help here, as do low ground pressure tyres on both our tractors, not over-filling either the combine tank or carting trailers, and driving grain trailers religiously on the tramlines.

“Over the years we’ve developed a system that suits our ground and conditions well. We’ve learnt a lot from Agrii over this time, particularly when it comes to producing quality Masterseeds crops.”

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