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Last edited on: 23:06:2017

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A helping hand with yields

Combine harvesters_12295

Twenty Twelve will be remembered for the successful London Olympics but there were few record-breaking performances for UK cereal growers during that year’s harvest.

After a year that produced smaller yields than for 20 years, an industry review was undertaken, looking into the reasons why yields were plateauing in wheat and oilseed rape crops.

ADAS Head of Crop Performance Roger Sylvester-Bradley said ADAS had been suggesting for a while that yields of 20 t/ha should theoretically be possible so it seemed a good time to take action.

Working with other industry organisations, including the NFU, ADAS launched a Yield Enhancement Network, or YEN, with the aim of spearheading an increase in UK grain yields.

“Our idea was to have a competition, not just to identify the best yielding UK cereal crops, but to work out how these high yields were produced, so all participants could benefit,” he said.

Professor Sylvester-Bradley said that the first year saw 20 crops entered, with a best yield achieved of 13.4 t/ha. Last year more than 100 growers participated in YEN, but in another difficult growing year their best yield was only 12.8 t/ha.

“While some YEN entrants like the element of competition, most growers join the YEN to benchmark their crops against similar crops on other farms, and to learn about enhancing yields. Almost all YEN participants are sponsored, so it doesn’t cost anything to join in, other than a little effort,” he said.

There are currently two Yield Enhancement Networks operating, one for cereals and one for oilseeds. Membership is open to all farmers, including those farming across Europe, with registration available online through the YEN website. Farmers need to provide basic information about their location and soil type before 15 July to take part this year.

Once registered, farmers are required to provide digital photos during the summer, use the YEN sample-pack to provide ADAS with samples of whole-crop and of grain at harvest, plus verified yield details and then send a print-out of their agronomy records after harvest.

The benefits of participating in YEN include a free analysis of soil health and grain nutrient status for the crop they enter, followed by a 10-page personalised report analysing the performance of that crop.

Participants can also access a programme of technical discussions centred on enhancing yields and will receive several newsletters during the year. They can attend an annual awards event as well.

With so many different farming operations, and soil types, involved, the organisers aim to establish a level playing field by expressing each yield as a percentage of potential as well as tonnes per hectare. Awards of gold, silver and bronze are made for both.

Potential yields are estimated according to the amount of light energy and water that a site receives in the year

According to NFU regional crops adviser James Mills, YEN has a useful role to play in helping farmers achieve on the ground what scientists say is theoretically possible.

“It has been evident for some time that the results achieved in wheat trials and the yields achieved on the ground by our members can be poles apart,” he said. “The Yield Enhancement Network not only seeks to close this gap but also look at the genetic potential around the country, providing a realistic target for those wanting to drive yields forward.

“Across Yorkshire and the North East, we have the genetic potential to produce up to 21 tonnes per hectare. The fact that the previous wheat world record was set in the region shows that this may not be just pie in the sky - but an achievable target given the right conditions and preparation. 

“YEN now links in effectively with the AHDB Monitor Farm network to build on the existing philosophy of sharing information between farmers to raise the collective bar. This process will inevitably involve challenging some existing practices; however the real benefit will be that results are derived at true field scale. This allows farmers and growers to see for themselves where their peers are pushing the boundaries and adopt a practical approach to push their yields to the next level.” 

Looking at what might account for yield variations between YEN crops, Professor Sylvester-Bradley says the amount of biomass generated appeared to be the most obvious feature.

“Largest grain yields generally arise from crops producing well over 20 t/ha of biomass. This has set YEN entrants thinking about how to maximise biomass growth,” he said.

“Key issues are how variety choice, earliness of sowing and nutritional programmes influence both shoot populations in spring and the length of time that crop canopies survive through July and maybe into August.”

ADAS says that one key aim of YEN is to encourage participants to try new ideas that might boost yields. However, it can be prohibitive, too expensive or too risky to try something new on an entire field so it has set up a YEN Yield Testing option for 2017.

Members met in January to discuss a range of ideas and then formed groups to carry out different approaches on adjacent tramlines running across their YEN-entered field.

“These tramlines will mostly be harvested by mapping combine harvesters and ADAS will analyse the yield maps to see how likely it is that the ‘new idea’ really did cause more grain to be harvested,” said Prof Sylvester-Bradley.

Now the main signs of what is causing the highest yields have been identified, the research organisations sponsoring the YEN, including ADAS, NIAB, and Rothamsted, are aiming to initiate projects to investigate.

Prof Sylvester-Bradley said: “As shown by 2016, it is unrealistic to expect grain yields to increase every year. But on the other hand, the consistent differences between different farms and husbandry systems show that management decisions strongly affect cereal yields.

“Also, there are plenty of new and interesting ideas to try. It is very rewarding to see the high level of belief and enthusiasm amongst YEN participants that there is plenty of scope for enhancing grain yields in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.”

The farmer’s view – Jonathan Scholey, Frickley near Doncaster

Jonathan Scholey and his family farm 1400 acres of prime arable land near Doncaster in South Yorkshire. Growing milling wheat, oilseed rape, barley, sugar beet and beans on primarily Limestone Brash soils, the family also runs a sizeable contracting business.

The main goal for future business development is to keep input costs as low as possible while growing crops that will fetch a premium, says Jonathan. And with Brexit on the horizon this is now more important than ever.

As a result, minimum tillage is the main cultivation approach, except where second wheats are concerned, when ploughing is the rule. But Jonathan is keen to explore any routes to improving yield and with this in mind he joined the biggest on-farm trial conducted by crop protection manufacturer BASF. Through their ‘Real Results Circle’ he was introduced to YEN and is taking part for the first time this year.

Although it is still early days, Jonathan says he’s relishing the opportunity to see how his farm’s performance stacks up against other similar holdings.

“Our top yield is 3.5-3.7 tonnes to the acre, but I’m interested to know what our potential is and what I need to do to achieve it,” he said. “It will also be interesting to compare our yields with others in the programme and I’m hoping to get some useful insights that will help us maximise our productivity.

“Although we have only just started with YEN, we have already had some benefit from the initial soil sampling report they produced. This looked at general soil health, organic matter and indexes and provided a fair amount of information that we’d not had before. So far I would recommend getting involved with YEN – especially if you can work with a sponsor to keep costs down.”


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