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Crop Advice & Expertise

Life as a Farmer: Q&A with Technical Manager David Fuller - Crop Focus TV: Episode 6

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James: Welcome to CropFocus TV. I’m here today at McGregor Farms in Coldstream to talk to David Fuller about the farming enterprise. David do you want to tell us a bit about the farm and yourself?

David: Yeah I’ve been Arable Technical Manager at McGregor Farms for the past 10 years. We’re currently farming 3,200 ha approximately on 14 different contract farms. On each farm we run a rotation bespoke to the farm itself depending on soil types, the client’s requirements and my key responsibilities within the business are growing the crop, field walking, directing the sprayers, the drills and purchasing and inputs.

James: That’s great. Let’s go and have a look at the farm.

TechFocus: Variable rate drilling

David: Alright James so here we are in our penultimate wheat field of the 2018 season. This is the field after potatoes and we’re just drilling with a Väderstad drill, quite late in the season now for us anyway.

James: It’s a heck of a piece of machinery. What sort of technology do you have on this piece to help you on the farm?

David: We drill variably so we use a variable seed rate, develop that through soil conductivity mapping the fields first which is a once in a lifetime thing for the field because the soil textures don’t change over time. We can then put the data into our Gatekeeper crop recording programme and from there we can generate variable rate seed maps depending on the soil types that were found with the conductivity scan. Basically putting more seed on heavier parts of the field and less seed on lighter parts of the field based on the expected establishment of the crop.

James: What’s the advantage of being able to change the amount of seed that you put on based on establishment?

David: I think using the system we use, we can put digital boundaries around different areas of the field. The drill drivers then not having to make the decisions for himself when he hits the heavier bits of the field and pressing the 5% up button. We’re varying the seed up to 40% on the very heavy parts of the farms and from the expected establishment 55% up to on better grounds, such as the ground you’re looking at the moment, probably 85-90% expected establishment.

James: So knocking it up and down 5% based on knowledge of the field sometimes isn’t quite enough?

David: No, nowhere near enough. I think you have to make big changes to make a difference to the establishment for the crop, or the evenness of the final crop at harvest so those big changes are needed and I don’t think we’d be brave enough to do that on our own without putting a digital boundary around it then it’s almost done for us. Also we’ll vary our seed rate according to the time of year so the base rate increases as the season gets later.

FutureFocus: Moving to strip-till to mitigate Brexit

Mike: So David I hesitate to bring up the B word but how are you, on the farm, looking to cope with Brexit?

David: I think it’s very difficult to know really how we’re going tocope. Agriculture generally adapts to different conditions, be it the climate or the political landscape. In this field, we’ve drilled this with a Claydon strip drill so at this point we’re thinking we’re going to try and keep a lid on costs or control our costs by doing less cultivation basically. I think the government have muted on soil health as being a criteria for qualifying for any sort of types of payments so we’re trialling this year a Claydon strip drill which we bought second hand and have drilled about 1200 acres with it this year.

Mike: And that’s pretty unusual up here in this neck of the woods isn’t it, to be using strip drill?

David: Yeah, traditional methods of crop establishment have been a plough and a power harrow combination in the past which is a safe way of establishing wheat crops with the climate that we get up here. We use a min-till system with a Väderstad drill for the bulk of our drilling and there’s only a couple of Claydon drills in the area. I don’t think anyone will have drilled quite as much as we have with one this season.

Mike: What sort of benefits do you hope to get from using a strip-till type approach?

David: I think saving a lot of time for ourselves, obviously it’s a one-pass system. Not doing an extra cultivation there or an extra couple of cultivations which we do with our other systems – the Väderstad and Simba system that we use so saving time, saving fuel and looking after the soil by not moving it unnecessarily.

Mike: And have you got any feelings for the kinds of savings that you’ve been able to achieve this autumn?

David: I think I’ve saved roughly 50% of our establishment costs and it’s not just about actually saving, we need to maintain our yield. As contract farmers we’ve got to make the pot as big as possible to split with our farming client so it mustn’t be at a detriment to yield. That’s our biggest challenge, reducing costs.

TechFocus: Cover cropping

James: David, we’re stood in front of one of your fields here, can you tell us a little bit about what’s in it?

David: Yeah so in the fields behind us, we’ve got a cover crop in there, it’s mustard. These two fields are destined for spring barley next year. Basically we’ve taken our spring barley crop off last year and then drilled them with our Claydon drill, strip-till, and then the plan would be to glyphosate this off in the spring and then drill with spring barley again next year.

James: Straight in with the Claydon?

David: Straight in with the Claydon.

James: Could you tell us a little bit about the decisions and the things you were thinking of when you thought about putting a cover crop in?

David: Yeah I think the main reason that we established a cover crop is because our harvest was relatively early this year, normally we’d be combining winter wheat, spring barley in the last week of August which is the time that we would normally be sowing oilseed rape. This year harvest was a little bit earlier so that enabled us to have the time and machinery to drill a cover crop. Nothing more technical than that unfortunately but it’s given us a look see we’ve left the strip in the middle of the field there to see how much benefit we get from a cover crop and it might just focus our minds a little bit in the future.

James: Have you had any problems with putting them in or are there any problems going forward?

David: No as you can see we’ve had quite good establishment, the only thing we’ve got was volunteer barley which we’ve actually sprayed off so hopefully we’ll just have mustard shortly because we don’t want a green bridge for the next years spring barley with something spring barley which was the previous crop. I think we’re just looking to improve the structure, we’re using the Claydon drill which is a strip-till which doesn’t move a lot of soil hopefully and then the tine on that drill will create the seed bed for spring barley with the mustard doing the rest for us.

James: Absolutely and I think the main thing with cover crops is the stuff that’s going on underneath the crop is just as important as the stuff that’s going on above and you using it in conjunction with the Claydon and I think you’ll have a really good turnout but it looks great and we’ll see how it turns out. Thanks a lot.

Hot Topic – how glyphosate can help control grass-weeds

Mike: So David, we hear quite a bit about black-grass further south but I guess black-grass here isn’t perhaps your main weed issue?

David: No, grass-weed wise we don’t really see much black-grass at all. Occasional plants we hand-rogue, all of our wheat fields are hand-rogued. We do pick one or two plants but brome really, sterile brome especially and we’ve got a new weed that’s giving us a bit of bother which is this fescue which you can see in this field.

Mike: So how do you deal with both of those?

David: Really, we use stale seed beds in the autumn so can get a spray of glyphosate, we also, this field here is stubble at the moment, destined for spring barley, and we’ve glyphosated it off now we’d of used it with the Claydon drill in spring when the conditions are right. Possibly we might need another spray around the headland which is where most of the problem seems to be.

Mike: And you mentioned glyphosate, obviously that’s a hot topic at the moment but what impact would not having access to glyphosate have on your business?

David: I think it would have a huge impact on us. We’re moving towards a strip-till system which really relies on glyphosate to spray the stale seed bed off before we drill it. Also, in our part of the world we use it as a harvest management tool so we’re basically pre-harvest spraying all our crop; oilseed rape, barley and wheat with glyphosate pre-harvest.

Mike: If you couldn’t do that, what impact would it have?

David: I think that it would lead to us requiring another combine to get through the harvest, which is a huge investment obviously. We find that it gives us a couple of percent moisture content and it definitely gets us into the field a lot quicker after rain. August is on average our wettest month and our harvest month as well so it could have a huge impact.

Mike: So for you, glyphosate is vital?

David: It’s very vital yeah, almost critical I would say.

Mike: Thank you.

TechFocus: Using hybrid oilseed rape varieties in your rotation

James: David, we’re stood in a fantastic looking field of oilseed rape, can you tell us a little bit about the variety about how it fits into your rotation and how important it is to you?

David: Yeah oilseed rape’s probably our most important break crop. We growpotatoes and vining peas, we can’t grow potatoes on every farm, nor vining peas, so oilseed rape is our main break crop, so obviously quite critical to our rotation. We grow 100% hybrids on the farm and the reason for that is for the vigour in the autumn and the spring but probably more importantly in the spring when we get cold, late spring we just had, crops get up and off and we grow the hybrids obviously for consistency also and yields so we’re aiming for a consistent yield across 625 ha on 14 different farms so it’s very important that we have consistency in yield.

James: And in terms of establishment, how do you go about putting it in the ground?

David: The crop’s established in a one pass system straight behind the combine, after winter wheat, probably 70% after winter wheat, and some after winter barley on some more challenging land and we use a Simba SL cultivator to establish the rape. We sow it at 40 seeds per m2 and with a liquid fertiliser, starter fertiliser, with it as well.

James: So give it a good start, and in terms of challenges that you face with the crop, what are they mainly?

David: The biggest challenge we find is soil conditions at time of sowing, with two Simba SLs, 7m SLs, we can drill about 100 ha a day so plenty of output so we can drill on the right days. We found in wet summers that that was pretty gruesome when you get the really wet summer to get the crop established, slugs are a big pressure to us as well, August being one of the wettest months, or our wettest month rainfall wise, slug pressure obviously increases towards the time that we’re sowing oilseed rape so slugs can be a bit of an issue as well as it’s establishing.

James: And up and down the country, we hear stories all the time in the farming press about cabbage stem flea beetle and the sort of dramatic effect it’s having on those crops. Is it affecting you here?

David: No I think we’re quite lucky in this area, we don’t really see a lot of cabbage stem flea beetle at all. This year we had our first scare since the ban in 2014. We had quite a bit of shot holing on some land we have near Kelso and west of the ground that we farm. We did spray that in the end just because 90% of plants were getting shot holed, 1 spray luckily that was the end of cabbage stem flea beetle and as you can see with the crop behind us, we’ve not had any pestilence really this autumn at all so I’m quite happy.

James: Well if you can keep it looking as good as this I’m sure it will produce a great crop.

David: Thanks a lot, hopefully.

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