August 16, 2012
Yorkshire Growers Find Ideal Solution to Extend Arable Rotation
Naked oats have proved an excellent way of extending the wheat and oilseed rape rotation at Charlie and Alaric Booth’s Smeathalls Farm, Knottingley in West Yorkshire to improve margins and reduce risk.
Now into their third season of growing the specialist high value oat crop, indeed, the brothers and their Agrii agronomist, Sam Patchett have developed a naked oat regime which generates margins comfortably above OSR and not far short of first wheat across their 800 acre (320 ha) arable business. This has been made possible by a combination of attractive fixed premium over feed wheat contracts, valuable returns from straw and particularly low growing costs.
“Like many people, our arable rotation had become more and more concentrated around wheat and rape over the years,” recalls Charlie Booth. “Wheat/wheat/rape served us well for some time. But a build-up of OSR volunteer and disease problems as well as indifferent second wheat performance was putting us in a cleft stick of increasing costs and declining yields. So we simply had to extend our rotation.”
In 2009 the Booths took the decision to move to only growing oilseed rape once every five years. Peas were an obvious choice as a wheat entry. Not least for the extra winter-long opportunity they give to control the major resistant ryegrass problem that is a legacy of much of the farm’s grassland past.
The real dilemma, though, was what else to grow. They needed another cereal but indifferent yields and high growing costs meant second wheats invariably struggled to generate decent margins. They’d grown winter barley in the past. However, the difficulty of controlling grassweeds as well as the experience of previous price collapses made them reluctant to go back to it.
Spring barley was a contender for a while. Until their then Masstock agronomist, Chris Dale suggested trying naked oats from GB Seeds for their attractive combination of grain and straw-earning opportunities, that was. Researching the crop together, they came to appreciate later-than-winter barley sowing and greater crop competitiveness would suit their autumn grass weed control challenge well too. So they introduced the crop in a progressive extension of their main rotation to a five year cycle of wheat, oats, peas, wheat and rape.
“The naked oats have proved just what we need so far,” Charlie Booth reports. “Drilling in mid-late September gives us the opportunity to prepare a good stale seedbed so we can burn off a big flush of ryegrass with Roundup before sowing. The tall variety we’re growing, Grafton (not to be confused with the wheat of the same name) has also proved very competitive, giving us excellent weed smothering.
“There’s a big local demand for the straw for horse feeding, in particular, up here. As a result, it generates very much better returns than barley straw at a £80-90/tonne, adding the equivalent of an extra half a tonne to the acre to our earnings.”
“Last year our 130 acre (52 ha) crop averaged 3.12 t/acre (7.7 t/ha),” adds Alaric. “And we recorded peaks of up to 4 t/acre (9.9 t/ha) in places. With the flat rate premium over feed wheat of our Superioat contract plus the straw, we earned not far short of £700/acre (£1730/ha) all told for an input cost two thirds the level of a typical second wheat to give us a gross margin of over £500/acre (£1230/ha).
“They’re certainly not for everyone and we’re still learning how best to grow them. But the margins we’ve been able to generate and the fact that they’re proving to be a true wheat break – and a better one than OSR, at that – leaves us confident that, armed with the best agronomic advice, we’re on the right track with naked oats.
“Having tried 70 acres of spring oats this year to give us extra time for grass weed control and lost the lot to flooding, we can also safely say they’re far more reliable than going down this route.”
Getting the Agronomy Right
Agrii agronomist, Sam Patchett explains that he and the Booth brothers have learnt the crop needs to go in at a higher seed rate than wheat and into a seedbed that provides the best possible conditions for the only real pre-em herbicide option, Lexus Millenium (flupyrsulfuron methyl + thifensulfuron methyl).
With the farm’s ryegrass problem, they’ve found it’s important to avoid fields with the highest levels of infestation, get good stale seedbed weed control and employ flumioxazin (Guillotine or Digital) as an early post-em.
“We use the root stimulating seed dressing Take-Off as a matter of course alongside a manganese seed dressing,” Sam Patchett points out. “With the light soils of the farm particularly prone to deficiency, we add manganese every time we spray the crop, plus Nutriphite PGA to give a continual extra boost to its competitiveness.
“We also spray at least once in the autumn for aphids to protect against BYDV.
“Even in a season ad favourable for disease as the most recent one, we’ve only had treat the naked oats with Helix (prothioconazole + spiroxamine) twice – at T1 and T2,. However, it’s a tall crop, so a robust PGR at T1 is imperative to keep it standing.
“Unlike wheat, you mustn’t wait for the grain to go hard before combining or you could be waiting for ever,” he warns. “Because the waxy straw takes an age to dry out naturally for baling, we reckon it’s advisable to employ Roundup pre-harvest to minimise unnecessary weather exposure; especially so given the straw’s particular value.”