Norfolk farmers urged to vary fertiliser strategy

Saturday, January 12, 2013
10:15 AM

Cereal growers should consider a “little and often” approach to crop nutrition to optimise potential returns, farmers at the John Innes Centre were told.

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For the first time, Frontier staged its regional conference at Colney to review three key arable crops – oilseed rape, barley and wheat.

It was appropriate that the event was held at the John Innes Centre, which has been a leader in the field of research of benefit to the agricultural and horticultural industries, said commercial director Alistair Knott, commercial director.

He welcomed more than 100 Norfolk farmers to the world centre of plant science, which had been established by a Surrey-based property developer, who had funded the John Innes Horticultural Institution at Merton, outside London. In the 1960s, the JIC had moved to Norwich and was now a leader in plant science.

It had been decided to split the southern regional event, which had been held at Duxford, near Cambridge, for the past six years.

Ed Downing, crop nutrition manager, said that soil temperatures had risen slightly since the new year to about 6.5C. “We’re seeing some of the ground starting to warm up,” he added.

There were massive difference in crop establishment this season, particularly where soils have become compacted and this has caused major problems.

Mr Downing said that roots were much smaller than at the same time last year, especially with many oilseed rape crops.

“This will have a big impact on the plant’s ability to take up big quantities of nutrients from the soil,” he added.

Farmers now faced the challenge of dealing with water-logged and saturated soils, which could be a major potential headache. When soils lacked oxygen because of water saturation, there was a great risk of break down of nitrates and production of nitrous oxides. “It might be 1kg or 2kg loss but environmentally it is massive because nitrous oxide is one of the worst greenhouses gas, 300 times worse than carbon dioxide,” said Mr Downing.

He urged growers to consider carefully needs of crops which could benefit from timely applications of fertiliser. However, it might be more sensible to review existing fertiliser strategies in the light of the very wet conditions in the past few months because crops might benefit from a reduced early application.

He warned that first-time maize growers to be aware of the huge uptake of plant nutrient uptake, which could be 6kg ha day of nitrate and 8kg ha day of phosphate.

Richard Pratt, barley and oats trader, warned that because of the big barley crop in Europe from last year, there could be a significant carry over stocks of malting barley in the new year. “That will keep a lid on premiums or the time being. With such small malting premiums in mainland Europe, a lot of that barley could be consumed in the animal feed market,” he added.

There was reason for some optimism because the Scottish distilling market was buoyant and one of the biggest distillers, Diageo had announced plans last summer to invest about £1bn in further capacity and also storage.

However, he said that demand for malting barley continued to decline and so was the area. With the probability of a big spring barley area, he added: “A significant volume of UK spring barley will have to go for animal feed.”

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