The greatest possible day-to-day flexibility in every aspect of OSR growing is the focus for manager, Frazer Jolly and Farmacy agronomist, Sally Morris at Saltby Farms on the north eastern edge of Leicestershire between Melton Mowbray and Grantham; a flexibility that means one 40 ha field was sown partly from a Sumo Trio and partly with a Vaderstad Rapid drill last autumn to deal with see-sawing weather conditions.
“Between us, Gary Wallace and I do all the fieldwork for our 800 ha of cropping,” said Frazer who moved from Suffolk to take-up the management reins two years ago. “The one thing Gary’s sick of hearing me say over the phone when he’s sowing our 250-plus ha of rape is ‘if it’s not right, stop’.
“In my experience, carrying on regardless is the road to disaster. Instead, we need to make the call on the day. The crop is an important part of our business, so we can’t afford to get it wrong by being insufficiently flexible in managing it; especially if we’re to push performance to the consistent 4.5t/ha average we want.”
Growing rape every other year as the business has been doing for a while, like many in the crop’s East Midlands heartland, means yields remain stubbornly below the 4 t/ha mark. Even so, at 46% oil last season on a premium LEAF contract and with tight cost control, it continues to generate perfectly acceptable margins alongside top quality milling wheat on the farm’s heavy clay to limestone brash ground.
“Actually, we’re amazed the rape has been delivering anywhere near 4t/ha with the rotation as close as it is – and, so far, without any clubroot problems,” observed Frazer Jolly. “Even though we’re growing some of the earliest maturing wheats, we can’t reliably sow it until the end of August. This makes our crops more vulnerable than we’d like to harvesting delays and the sort of weather we had autumn.
“Our aim is to step-up performance by moving oilseed rape out to one year in every five or six with more spring cropping, in particular. We’re already growing 140 ha of spring barley and 30 ha of sugar beet and planning to increase both as we move forward. We also have the opportunity to add arable land into the silage rotation of the top-performing 300 cow Brown Swiss dairy herd also run on the estate under a farm business tenancy.
“Extending the rotation should help us manage the slugs that are our biggest pest while giving us far greater opportunities to keep on top of black-grass which is definitely becoming more challenging here.”
Alongside rotational change, Frazer Jolly and Sally Morris are looking to improve a number of areas of OSR management at Saltby Farms – from variety choice and establishment through nutrition and disease control to harvest management. In all these respects, flexibility is their key imperative.
Keeping their eggs in more than one basket is important as far as rape genetics is concerned. They currently have four different varieties in the ground– two hybrids and two conventionals – aiming to match them to the particular needs of their land increasingly closely. At the same time, hosting a series of Dekalb strip trials enables them to keep a close eye on how some of the most promising newcomers suit their conditions.
“We need varieties that are consistently good year after year, not just one-year wonders,” stressed Sally Morris. “So the sort of disease resistance, fast autumn development and shatter resistance carried by varieties like DK Extrovert are as important in our choice as gross output ratings. These strengths allow us to get a decent crop even when the weather gets in the way of our best-laid plans – as it so often seems to do these days.
“Alongside earlier sowing wherever possible, the main thing we’re working hard on is the consistency with which we’re able to sow our seed just below the surface into moisture with the best seed-to-soil contact regardless of the conditions.”
At the moment, the team is maintaining its flexibility with parallel establishment systems that can be switched at a moment’s notice. Given the area of rape to be drilled and the shortage of time after wheat harvesting, a single Sumo Trio pass with the discs just tickling the surface, sowing slightly to one side of the legs to prevent too much seed going in too deep, is the preferred approach.
Run right behind the combine, this is a very rapid and economic regime and highly effective when conditions are right. Seeding into a covering of well-chopped and spread straw, it does a particularly good job in preserving moisture. It also works well sowing into the farm’s lighter ground following manure from the dairy herd – swapped for straw – incorporated with a Horsch Joker.
When the weather turns as wet then hot as it did last autumn, though, the system’s lack of sowing depth consistency becomes all too apparent in large amounts of seed being held-up in the straw mulch, germinating within it and failing to establish.
Under these circumstances, Frazer Jolly has found the farm’s main Vaderstad Rapid drill – with every other coulter blocked-off to give similar 50 cm sowing bands – gives much better seed placement, drilling into previously Trio’d ground.
“Essentially then, we Trio as a matter of course,” he explained. “But if the conditions aren’t right at any stage we stop sowing from it immediately and switch to the drilling with the Rapid. An extra pass isn’t ideal given our time constraints, but it’s worth it to get the even establishment we need.
“With rolling every bit as crucial – not least in minimising slug and flea beetle problems – we stop drilling too whenever conditions mean we can’t roll immediately afterwards and only start again when we know we’ll be able to roll; much to Gary’s frustration!
“Despite my best intentions, we always seem to force-in a field of rape that we should really have known not to drill. So we’re exploring a number of home-built ways of improving the consistency of our single-pass sowing to give us more time and flexibility here. A big shiny new all-purpose drill might do the trick but we don’t want to spend that sort of money.”
All the Saltby Farms OSR goes in at between 50-60 seeds/m2, with the seed rate varied manually to conditions in each part of the field. The same goes for slug pelleting from the Gator using maps prepared by Frazer and Sally from their field-walking.
This manual approach to ‘precision’ means they only use the inputs they need where and when they need them; a needs-based flexibility informed by constant monitoring that typifies every aspect of their rape agronomy.
“We don’t use a pre-em here and only apply starter fertiliser when we know we have a crop,” pointed out Sally Morris. “As soon as we’re confident of reasonable establishment we apply 30kg/ha of nitrogen to any areas that haven’t received muck. Then we use an early post-em co-formulation of dimethenamid-P + metazachlor with extra metazachlor where necessary to deal with the usual broad-leaved suspects – especially cranesbill.
“Blanket spraying isn’t on our agenda either, so it’s very much horses for courses as we go through the season. However, we almost always need a graminicide to deal with wheat volunteers and where black-grass is problematic we’ve found clethodim works well in giving us more leeway to hold-on for the best propyzamide timing.
“Strong disease resistance in our varieties means our single autumn fungicide spray – in early-mid November, depending on conditions – tends to be tebuconazole, with a bit of prothioconazole included for varieties with lower light leaf spot resistance than we’d like.
“We’re equally flexible in the timing of our stem extension spraying, incubating leaves regularly to make sure we can keep ahead of any LLS development,” she said. “Up to now we’ve been relying on tebuconazole for any growth regulation at stem extension. This year, though, we’re looking closely at a promising new PGR that claims to shorten the flowering period substantially by evening-up rape development.”
Leaf tissue testing in both the autumn and spring ensures any nutrients the crops are short of – mainly boron and molybdenum – are included with the sprays whenever they are needed.
This is part of the greater management focus being put on the period from flowering to harvest they see as a key area for improvement alongside establishment. In particular, they are intent on keeping the canopy as green and efficient as possible for as long as possible through more even flowering, stay-green chemistry and better all-round nutrition.
Noting that the main difference between the top and bottom yielders across last year’s entire YEN competition was an extra 10 days between flowering and desiccation, they see leaving their rape as long as possible before going-in with the glyphosate as another good opportunity to gain both yield and oil content.
“As well as flexibility we’re pretty good at patience here,” concluded Frazer Jolly. “With so much of the yield coming from the lower pods these days we’re never in any hurry to desiccate. And last year we didn’t need to spray one block at all. So this is another area in which we’re keeping-up the closest monitoring so we can make the call on the day.”