Early-sown wheat could be drought-beater for Norfolk light land farms
A three-year light land early-sowing wheat trial could transform yields across East Anglia.
With thousands of acres of wheat on lighter land in Norfolk, Sentry Farms has been looking to break the yield plateau by sowing crops in the first week of September.
Sentry's John Barrett, based at Ditchingham, near Bungay, said that about a third of its national wheat acreage was on lighter land. 'We're farming from Dorset to Scotland, predominantly in East Anglia, and have about 10,000 acres in Norfolk,' he said.
As Sentry's cropping included more oilseed rape, there was potential for more early sown wheat. 'If we can actually raise traditionally perceived low-yielding light land, we can justify spending a bit more on the crop,' he added.
The trials, which started in 2010 on the Denham estate, Barrow, near Bury St Edmunds, yielded benefits – despite contrasting seasons in the past two years. Sentry's farm manager Matt Bell, said: 'Last year, we found that our lighter land wheats were getting performance of about half a tonne per hectare from drilling in the second week of September compared with the last week. They delivered last year.'
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A switch to early drilling, around September 1, required more planning. Forward crops needed more protection to enhance and maintain yield potential. However, the actual cost difference between early and late (conventional) drilling was only about £25 hectare, said Mr Bell, who is moving to the 3,500-acre Croft Farms, near Darlington, in north Yorkshire.
The trials were drilled in one of the lightest fields on the 1,200-acre Denham estate but wheat crops on heavier land have been more consistent when sown earlier. Cropping included wheat - Santiago, JB Diego and Invicta - with oilseed rape and pulses. 'We're aiming to drill 50pc by September 20 and all by the beginning of October,' he added. It cost an additional £15 ha to protect crops from slugs.
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'Also with the amount of seed we're using, 70 to 80kg ha for early-sown plots, it is essential to use an insecticidal seed dressing. But at the low seed rates, we're actually delivering less product than recommended,' he added.
The trials, which are run by Agrovista, were building on work carried out in the 1990s. 'It showed quite conclusively it was possible to improve light land wheat yields by sowing earlier,' said technical manager, Mark Hemmant, who is based at Cawston, Norfolk.
He set up the quarter-hectare trials with sowing from early September to mid-October and beyond. 'We're trying to grow higher yields by drought-proofing by sowing earlier.'
At Denham, Santiago at 104 seeds sq metre on September 2, 2011 against a more traditional crop with 350 seeds per sq metre on October 17, both yielded 9.6 tonnes per ha. The wet summer made it difficult to protect early sown crops, so yield was obviously hit.