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Talking Agronomy | Greg Taylor - March 2022

Blog - 05.04.22

On the ground, things are very much the same, with our crops continuing to be well ahead of last year and full of potential. But our world has changed out of all recognition in less than a month. And, for once, it has been nothing to do with the weather.

Last month most agronomic thinking revolved around the imperative of and opportunities for fertiliser savings. While the greatest Nitrogen Use Efficiency (NUE) remains central and the Ukrainian tragedy has pushed AN prices to over three times last summer’s levels, our current approach has become far more strategic.

The upward pressure the Russian invasion has put on most crop values in a world of already tight supplies certainly bodes well for the coming harvest. But if this season’s volatility has taught us anything it has to be that all bets on 2023 harvest values are off.

About the only thing we can be sure of next season is that input costs will be much higher than this one’s. Which means our priority has switched to getting the very most from our excellent 2022 crop opportunities. This is about the only way most businesses will be able to cope with the unprecedented input inflation in the pipeline for next season – not least cash flow-wise.

Some breakeven ratio calculations may suggest we’d be better-off cutting back on nitrogen, in particular. But with volatility piled on volatility, they are out-of-date almost as soon as we’ve done them so next to useless. Instead, our emphasis on using this harvest to build for the future means focussing on maintaining the most productive inputs, matching them carefully to soil status, crop condition and, above all, crop potential.

As expected, we are seeing soil mineral nitrogen levels encouragingly higher than last year across-the-board. And soils where we have really improved organic matters are coming back with additionally available nitrogens (AANs) 20-50 kg/ha up on the rest, offering us even greater future as well as current fertilisation flexibility.

Looking ahead, we are actively exploring technologies like LiquiSafe to improve liquid nitrogen utilisation. In field-scale comparisons last year one of my growers obtained a 5% increase in wheat yields from its combination of urease and nitrification inhibitors. At the same time, he was able to reduce his fertiliser passes from three to two – particularly appreciated with escalating diesel prices.

We are also paying close attention to the heavy land Green Horizons work at Stow Longa where, in a difficult season, the research team brought in almost 9t/ha of full specification Skyfall from just 164kg N/ha last harvest with a Nitrogen Use Efficiency (NUE) of over 95%. This really underlines what is possible by balancing the most effective nitrogen applications with fresh available sulphur, potash, magnesium and calcium.

Enhanced micro-nutrition – copper, zinc and boron, in particular – is another area in which we are looking to improve our NUEs following extensive AgriiFocus systems trials showing yield benefits of up to 1t/ha in winter wheat and almost as much in spring barley.

It would be nice to think the improvements we’ve been making in our soil health would carry through into improved plant health and the opportunity for reduced reliance on crop protection as well as fertiliser inputs; especially so as we’ve lost yet another valuable rust-active triazole this spring. I have to say, though, we have yet to see any good evidence of this.

Where we really have the opportunity for future spray programme flexibility, if not savings, is in better variety choice, though. At the Brackley iFarm, indeed, we have had untreated Graham outyielding fully-treated Skyfall. And the likes of KWS Extase are really moving us forward, offering particular opportunities for promising biologicals such as Iodus.

While we are using the breathing space of this season to try out these and other approaches, our over-riding imperative is not letting anything get in the way of making the very most of our current crops. Next season’s livelihoods depend on it.

Greg Taylor

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