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Crop Advice & Expertise

Life as a farmer: Q&A with Andrew Williamson - Crop Focus TV: Episode 4

Join us at Andrew Williamson’s farm in Bridgnorth where we will be discussing the benefits of cover cropping in improving soil health, how YEN has helped to improve Andrew’s wheat biomass and his zero tolerance approach to grass-weeds.

We hope you enjoy the fourth edition of CropFocusTV. We certainly had an interesting day with Andrew Williamson. Watch out for the next edition coming your way – subscribe to our channel on YouTube for all our latest video content.

If you have any questions, please contact your local CTM or Tweet @Bayer4CropsUK.

Farmer Focus

Gareth: Okay so we’re here in Shropshire with Andrew Williams, so Andrew tell us a little bit about your farm.

Andrew: So we’re a farm about 900 acres here in the British north, it’s a combinable crop farm, we’re growing a combination of wheat, OSR, winter barley, spring barley, oats and spring beans and we’ve got a little bit of grassland as well and also the whole farm is a high-level environmental scheme.

Gareth: Okay so you were brought up here, you went away to University, what drew you back to the farm?

Andrew: I think I always knew in my heart of hearts that I wanted to become a farmer, I was always interested in it from a very young age but equally so I wanted to get away, I wanted to go and see other things. I ended up going to University because I was relatively good at what I did and I didn’t want to go to agricultural college either and so eventually I decided I’ve got to come back and make a decision so I came back in 1999 and told my dad I’d give it 5 years and if I still liked it I’d stay and if not I was going somewhere else and I’m still here now so.

Andrew: I think our biggest challenge is going to be to make sure we can build a resilient business based around cost of production, but also based around rotation and getting crops we can grow, a real challenge for us from sort of your point of view is the loss of actives we’ve got, there’s going to be more change, we’re going to have to do things now with less I think and we’re going to have to think of different solutions and look at different alternatives and where that’s going to come from I’m not sure but there’s lots of things we’re trying to do and actually I think the future’s quite exciting to be honest.

Gareth: Change isn’t always a bad thing is it?

Andrew: No, no I think it isn’t, I mean we can look back on history, the last 10-15 years and we’ve gone backwards in some cases and we need to learn from those lessons, things like weed control, we need to learn, we need to be a bit more proactive, we can’t just keep doing the same things year on year. We need to find out what works and what doesn’t and change things around a bit and that’s really what makes farming interesting – the fact that you can do different things, one year’s not the same to the next. It also makes it rather frustrating as well because you think you’ve cracked it and then you do that the next year as well and it doesn’t work, so yeah there’s lots of things.

Gareth: Yeah excellent.

Technical Focus – grass-weed strategies

Gareth: So we’ve just seen you spray off your barley because of the rye-grass in it so what issues have you got with weeds on the farm?

Andrew: So the issues of weeds on the farm are quite diverse. We’ve got a mixed population of grass-weeds – rye-grass, brome grass, both soft and sterile brome grasses and we’ve got some black-grass. And part of the reason why we were spraying this barley off today is to even up the senescence of it but also the barley, the rye-grass has been sprayed off because we got an area in this field where we’ve got fallow, which we left because we couldn’t control the rye-grass in the preceding wheat crop so we’re never going to control it in barley and so we just need to finish it off because otherwise it’s going to get seed return and we don’t want to get seed return.

Gareth: So what strategies are you incorporating, as well as just spraying off?

Andrew: So the main, we’ve got sort of three pronged approach to grass-weed control which we’ve taken from the niche to try and learn lessons from there. Firstly we will identify what weeds we’ve got and which species we’ve got and where and we try to make sure and record which species we’ve got where so we’ve got a record and then we can use that to tailor our future programmes and make sure we’re targeting the right weed. And then we’ll also rogue all the fields, walk them and pull them out if they’re hand roguable. If they’re not hand roguable then we’ll go out and we’ll spray them either with a knapsack or handheld sprayer or if they’re big patches we’ll spray them with the main sprayer and I just am prepared to take out large areas if necessary because we just do not want to get any seed return.

Gareth: And do you manage the progress over years to see how you’re doing, your strategy?

Andrew: Yeah we do, well we’ve just started doing that now, so this year with the rogueing situation we’ve started logging how much time we spent on each field to give us an idea of cost as well and then we can allocate that to that field and also it’s a better record rather than trying to remember what you saw in each field so for example, we’ve got some fields where we’ve got black-grass but we may have only pulled 4 plants out of a 30ha field but we’ve still got some black-grass there but then if we pulled out, if we spent 10 hours in there rogueing and most of it’s rye-grass then we need to tailor our programme towards rye-grass as opposed to black-grass. But it’s those little odd plants that we find when rogueing which we mustn’t miss.

Gareth: So did you incorporate a zero tolerance strategy?

Andrew: Yeah I would say we have a zero tolerance strategy to it but we have to choose our crop because some crops, like wheat is better than others but you can’t have a zero tolerance on this barley, this barley is quite dirty and winter barley in particular is becoming one of our dirtiest crops because of the lack of chemistry post-emergence, so we accept that we’re going to get some grass-weeds in there but we know it’s going to OSR and we can hopefully control it within the OSR.

Gareth: So you tailor your rotation as well?

Andrew: Yeah it’s all about rotation as well and we’ll pick fields, where we used to have a very fixed rotation where it went x,y,z but now our rotation is built right around about this time of year and we’ll pick. If a certain field is dirty and it’s supposed to be going into wheat or something else, we’ll change it and we’ll put in a spring crop.

Gareth: So you can adapt.

Andrew: Adapt, yeah we have to be flexible because the weeds are so we need to be as flexible as they are.

Gareth: Excellent.

Technical Focus: spring cropping

Gareth: So Andrew, we’re in this crop of beans, really nice crop of beans. How long have you been growing beans on the farm for?

Andrew: We’ve been growing beans regularly on the farm for about 4 years now and the main reason why that is, is because we’ve started changing our rotation so we’ve started bringing more spring cropping whereas 4 years ago we would have been completely block winter cropping, cereals and OSR. And the problem from that, the grass-weeds were getting a bit out of control so we brought the spring cropping back in to help with grass-weed control.

Gareth: So the crop looks great, how did you establish it?

Andrew: So this was established following a cover crop, a winter cover crop on, following a crop of winter wheat of a mix of spring beans, all sorts of things, winter oats, berseem clover, vetch, buckwheat, things like that. Very diverse mix. And then we went forward with light cultivation in the spring and then drilled it with a Väderstad drill.

Gareth: Okay and the reason for putting the cover crop in?

Andrew: The cover crop, two things, we were trying to improve the soil health, we’re trying to keep something living and growing in the soil all the time, a living root. It also helps with, as you can see from this field, there’s quite a large valley where we used to have two separate fields and we get a problem with soil erosion, water erosion into that valley and we found from experience that if we can get a cover crop established well into mid-late August then we can get good root structure and we don’t get the soil erosion. So obviously we’re keeping the water in the field and we’re keeping the nutrition in the field which is keeping all of everything else so we want to most importantly keep the soil in the field as well.

Gareth: Okay excellent.

Technical Focus: YEN approaches

Rozzi: Alright Andrew so we’re here today in your YEN field and you’ve been doing YEN for 3 years now haven’t you, so what’s your key approach to YEN?

Andrew: So our key approach to YEN is to try to learn what we’re doing wrong really and we want to do it on a whole field approach, we’re not interested in doing small, taking little tiny pockets of really good parts of the field because we need to make sure we can perform across the whole field. So it’s quite holistic: we’re trying to get a healthy soil to create the healthy crop to get healthy people as well so the whole thing is just moving forward to get the health right and the crop in the soil.

Rozzi: Yep and would you say you’ve learnt any one thing from YEN or a whole series of things?

Andrew: So the main learning from YEN really from what we’ve seen is biomass and getting a bigger crop and one of our failings is we get a low head per m2 normally but we get big heads but even though, when I found out that no matter how, when you’ve got a small head number you can’t compensate, you can’t get enough grains per m2 and that’s ultimately what we’re trying to get. So we’re trying things like, we’re using more nitrogen early on and we’re also starting to look at using biostimulants as well to try and just, again, trying to keep that crop as healthy as possible so it can cope with different situations. It can cope with heat stress, drought stress, all that sort of thing so just trying to move things forward – more of a holistic approach really.

Rozzi: Great, well it’s looking good now so best of luck for this season!

Andrew: Yeah, well hopefully it’ll be okay. We’ll see!

Gadget Focus: N-Tester

Rozzi: Okay Andrew so you mentioned that you’re trying to do everything with a bit more attention to detail then possibly going forwards using more decision support tools, so what is it that you’re using here?

Andrew: So yeah, at the moment we’re using an N-tester to help out with our nitrogen strategies. We’ve been using precision agriculture for the last 10 years including an N-Sensor to manage the amount of variable nitrogen we put on, but we’re looking to use the tester now to see if we can manipulate the timings and make sure we get the timings correct and also the application rates so now before we go and put fertiliser on, we’ll go out to the field, we’ll take a sample, it’ll tell us how much nitrogen is in the crop and how much is actually required because obviously depending on climate and weather, the nitrogen we put on beforehand may have been taken out, may have not been, we may need to go early, we may need to go later so it’s just trying to fine-tune those decisions rather than just saying I’m going to put so much on this date and I’m going to put so much on the next date, and just make it a bit more flexible and more fluid. And reactive, rather than proactive.

Rozzi: So how have you used that this season, at what timings have you taken them this season?

Andrew: So we normally put a flat rate base right on to start with just to wake the crop up over winter and then we use the N-Tester before the second and third dressings to make sure we’re getting the right timing and putting the right amount on and we’re also looking to move forward to tie it in with the N-Sensor so we can go to a particular point in the field, take a reading and then that will tell me that I need to put on a certain amount of nitrogen and we take the N-Sensor to that same point and tell the N-Sensor at this point, you need to put this amount of nitrogen on, and it will find all the corresponding points around the field and put the same amount on, rather than putting the average so that’s one way forward in moving as well but we’re not quite sure how it’s going to pan out quite yet.

Future Focus

Rozzi: So Andrew, obviously with Brexit around the corner and all the uncertainty that that will bring to the industry, how’s that affecting your business?

Andrew: Yeah well Brexit is the great known, unknown isn’t it? And we don’t know what’s going to happen and it’s just I see it as a catalyst for change and we make sure that our business is resilient for the future, both economically and rotationally and everything, so we’re looking at different things where we are, our farming policy, we share our machines with the neighbour, it gives us a bit more chance to reduce our cost of production and currently the drill we’re stood by now has been sold, we’re changing that. The shared machinery really helps us from an economic and social point of view, it’s better for the bottom line but it’s also better for our morale, it’s better for our interaction with other people, farming can be quite isolating and it’s good to have another person to talk to, to bounce ideas off and just work that way so hopefully we’ll be much better in the future no matter what comes out of Brexit, if anything.

Rozzi: Great.


Rozzi: Alright so that rounds up a great visit to Andrew Williamson’s farm.

Gareth: Stay tuned for the next episode, I’m back off to Wales

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