Peas Provide Perfect Platform for Cotswold Rotation Development - Agrii - Connecting Agri-science with farming

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December 19, 2013

Peas Provide Perfect Platform for Cotswold Rotation Development

Large blue peas are proving an ideal way for Gloucestershire grower, Toby Baxter to extend and improve his combinable crop rotation at Chavenage Farms near Tetbury.

So successful were the 48ha of Daytona he grew for the first time on a premium contract with pulse specialists, Dunns last season that he plans to devote a quarter of the 380 ha Cotswold holding he farms for George Lowsley-Williams to the crop each season from now on.

As well as extending rape growing to what he and his Agrii agronomist, John Vickery consider to be a more sustainable one year in four for the farm, the peas fit well into the modern no-till approach they have been developing in recent years.

At the same time, they are providing the opportunity for generating extra value and improving soil organic matter levels by finishing store lambs off stubble turnips. They are offering exciting possibilities for substantial extra rotational change in the years ahead. And, as if that wasn’t enough, they were the best margin-earning crop on the farm last year.

Unlike many farms, the move to a spring break at Chavenage last season wasn’t driven by the vagaries of the winter. Instead, it was part of a planned move to address flat-lining OSR yields in the farm’s wheat/barley/rape rotation while improving cover management following a switch from minimum tillage to direct drilling.

“To push oilseed rape yields consistently beyond the 4t/ha mark here without excessive inputs we realised we needed to grow the crop less frequently than one year in every three,” explained Toby Baxter. “Having considered all the options – both autumn and spring-sown – very carefully, John and I went for the combining peas.

“As well as extra opportunities for grass weed control both before and within the crop and their valuable nitrogen contribution, we chose them because they suited our thinner soils much better than beans.  The fact they could be sown well into April, if necessary, was a great attraction too, giving us the greatest establishment certainty in a difficult spring and the best possible flexibility for late winter lamb grazing.”

“We chose Daytona on a guaranteed £300/t Dunns contract for the extra value and security it offered,” added John Vickery. “Large blues are more flexible and generally easier to manage with lower inputs than marrowfat peas. Lack of bleaching and staining are critical to reliable premium earning. So Daytona’s superior colour retention made it particularly attractive to us. As did its early ripening, great standing power and impressive disease resistance.”

The crop’s sowing flexibility proved a godsend at Chavenage last spring. The cold spring meant drilling had to be delayed until mid-April, 48 hours after the preceding winter wheat stubble with its chopped straw mulch was sprayed off with glyphosate.

Put into excellent conditions with 30kg/ha of placement phosphate through the Dale Zero Till drill, it came through within the week and grew away strongly with no pigeon, slug or weevil problems. A blanket dressing of 100kg/ha polysulphate was broadcast soon after drilling – mainly as a sulphur source – with variable potash applied subsequently to precision-zoned soils to build K Indexes to 3 in the rotation.

“Other than a full trace element programme, these were the only nutrients we applied,” John said. “Our crop protection programme wasn’t exactly excessive either.  We used a pre-em combination of clomazone + linuron with pendimethalin to tackle broad-leaved and grass weeds, followed by bentazone post-em to tackle the runch we knew we had in the block.

“To make the most of the break, we added a graminicide to our first fungicide on May 21
and an aphicide to our second at pod set. We didn’t need a pea moth spray as we couldn’t find a single moth in our monitor traps. Nor did we need to desiccate with Roundup. So our input costs were less than £400/ha.

“Averaging 3.8 t/ha – against the 3.5 t we budgeted – at a quality well within pecification, the peas were our highest margin-earner last year. This certainly raised our spirits in a difficult season and confirmed the crop as a permanent fixture in the rotation.”

At least as important as their immediate profitability for Toby and John are the extra opportunities the peas are opening up within the innovative no till approach being developed with the support of independent tillage consultant, Steve Townsend; an approach focused on improving soil and crop health and resilience by making the most of residues and cover across a more sustainable rotation as much as merely direct drilling.

This spring’s Daytona, for instance, will be going in after stubble turnips broadcast into last season’s standing cereal about a month before harvesting. These established especially well in the moisture-holding micro-climate of the ripening crop and subsequently in the ‘stubble’ left after harvesting with a stripper header.

“The stubble turnips are providing us with excellent finishing for store lambs from the 3000 ewe New Zealand Romney flock we also run on rented ground across the county,” pointed out Toby. “What’s more, relatively late-sown peas means the latest possible lamb grazing so we can take the greatest advantage of the rising lamb market up to Easter.

“Add the financial contribution the grazing makes to the arable business and the organic matter injection from reintroducing stock into the rotation – not to mention the contribution the cover  crop itself makes to soil vitality – and the overall value of what we’re doing really stacks up.”

The peas are also opening-up the possibility of the ‘double break’ Toby Baxter would ideally like to have for a more sustainable rotation with the least agronomic risk and lowest input cost. This season he and John Vickery have put in 8 ha of OSR following the peas as a trial.

As well as providing the Rolls Royce of rotational weed control, they reason that the residual N from the pea crop is far more valuable for rape than for any winter cereal and could do much to cut their single biggest OSR cost. They want to see too if volunteer peas can be a valuable companion crop, storing extra N for spring use and providing early weed suppression and slug food without adversely affecting crop establishment and performance.

“The peas came off on August 15 so we had time enough to get the rape in,” reported Toby. “We were going to direct drill it, but our tined-drill couldn’t cope with the mountain of trash so we ended up broadcasting at 40 seeds/m2 with a good dose of slug pellets. For the future, we plan to engineer a direct drilling solution.

“The peas were over-thick in places – mainly because we made the mistake of trying to harvest the standing crop with the stripper, which we won’t be doing again. Even so and despite the trash, the rape established really well and a dose of AstroKerb in mid-November has helped the peas die back. So far so good.”

Should this experiment prove successful, the team are currently considering following the rape with winter barley ahead of wheat before going back to peas ahead of rape. Radical this step may seem. However, the double break opens up the possibility of a premium MasterSeeds barley seed-growing contract, which would offer a higher gross margin than a first wheat.  In turn, the early barley harvest would allow a short term cover crop ahead of October wheat sowing to further  improve both weed control and soil condition.

Making the best possible use of GPS supported with RTK, Toby Baxter has also been experimenting with precision direct drilling oilseed rape in 20” rows between 10” rows of cereal harvested with the stripper header; this to deter pigeons and provide a far better micro-climate for OSR establishment.

Another technique being actively explored is drilling cereals ‘on the green’ after rape to provide slugs with actively-growing OSR volunteers rather than dead or dying residues as an alternative diet, allowing wheat to escape harmful slug hollowing and seedling damage.

“Our move to no till farming hasn’t been without its challenges and we’ve certainly made some mistakes along the way,” stressed Toby Baxter. “I’m sure they won’t be the last either. However, I’m equally sure the approach we’re taking is the best way of improving the performance and resilience of our arable business. Introducing peas has been a value first step  in our rotational change. And it has opened our minds to a host of valuable new possibilities.”