Winter oilseed rape profitability may be on a knife edge for many, but as three growers in very different parts of the country pointed out at a special DEKALB crop management round table this spring, it continues to be their best rotational option alongside winter or spring cereals.
Fred French from Sevenoaks in Kent, James Price from Woodstock in Oxfordshire, and Andrew Ward from Leadenham near Lincoln run very different combinable cropping systems on very different ground. However, they share several things in common – a belief that winter oilseed rape is their best break; a determination to make it pay, even at current prices and costs; and remarkably similar approaches to doing so.
“With the exception of Daytona peas grown on a valuable human consumption contract, oilseed rape was one of our most profitable crops last year,” explained Fred French. “It certainly paid us as well as our milling wheat.”
At almost exactly 4.0 t/ha, yields for the 550 ha of rape grown across 12 holdings by his St Clere Farms were slightly on 2014, though comfortably above the 3-7-3.8 t/ha budget and far higher than the 3.1-3.2 t/ha of seven or eight years ago. In that time variable costs have gone up by a good 70%. By improving working efficiency, though, he has been able to keep per hectare operating costs almost exactly the same, so overall crop production costs have increased by less than 30%.
“Depending on the ground, we grow rape one year in three after two wheats or every fifth year with another wheat and beans in the rotation,” he said. “We’re not looking to extend this in any way. Growing rape as our main cereal break suits our ground and facilities nicely.
“While the peas earned us £270/t last season, we can’t find pulse contracts at much more than £160/t now. Oilseed rape has nothing like the same sort of demand limitations, so it remains a far less volatile option.
“As well as keeping costs/tonne as low as we can, we concentrate on getting the greatest returns from our rapeseed,” added Mr French. “Most of our current crop is DK Extrovert or
DK Exalte, all of which qualifies for the LEAF premium with ADM. We’re also growing a good amount of V316OL on a HOLL contract.
“Selling forward wherever we see favourable opportunities allows us to lock into prices we know will deliver a margin at our costs of production. By doing this we were able to average £330/t for last year’s crop.
“This is something we certainly aren’t likely to match this time around. So we’re concentrating on wringing every bit of yield and oil we can from our agronomy at the least expense to maximise returns and minimise per tonne costs.
“Good crop establishment with vigorous, fast-developing varieties means we often don’t need to use a pre-em; especially if we move the least possible amount of soil at sowing. Robust disease resistance means we’re only using a single autumn spray as a rule. And shatter resistant varieties means we’ve yet to bother with a pod sealant and can afford to hold-off on harvesting for the highest yield and oils.”
More from less is every bit as much of an oilseed rape growing priority for James Price at Perdiswell Farm just outside Woodstock. Even with copious amounts of organic manure and rape grown only every four or five years, yields are seriously limited on his mainly Cotswold brash ground.
“Last season we were able to bring in 5.43 t/ha from DK Explicit in the 3x3 Initiative trials we run with Monsanto, BASF and Yara ,” he pointed out. “But our 122 ha of winter OSR only averaged 3.3 t/ha – 3.35t/ha from DK Excellium and 3.29 t/ha from Incentive.
“This was well down on our five year average of 3.67 t/ha. Interestingly, the fields we drilled latest (at the end of August) performed noticeably better than those we drilled earlier in the month. Equally, our best and worst fields (4.15 t/ha and 1.94 t/ha) were next door to each other, drilled with the same variety on the same day and managed identically. This sort of oilseed rape variation remains inexplicable to us.
“Even so, oilseed rape was just about the only crop that made us a decent margin last year. And with just one full time member of staff it’s important for spreading our workload with manure applications, cultivations, drilling, spraying and harvesting. Nothing else half fits as well as a margin-earner or break. Especially beans. They’re a ‘wish’ crop – wish you had them, then wish you hadn’t.”
James Price sees some opportunities for further improving his agronomy. However, having already moved to single-pass establishment with starter fertiliser, variable rate P and K and mainly liquid fertilisation, he sees any agronomic improvement coming from small gains in a number of areas rather than any major change.
Having said that, using the N-Sensor in one field did save £80/ha in nitrogen for no yield loss, suggesting greater precision in these sort of areas could offer valuable savings without compromising all-important performance.
“It’s too risky for us to go below the 50 seeds/m2 we’re drilling with our hybrids,” stressed James. “We’re trying an area of conventional rape this season with a view to farm-saving seed, but I am worried about losing vigour in our establishment. And I really don’t think we can get away with less than a single application of slug pellets or four herbicide and two foliar disease sprays – plus however many sclerotinia treatments the season demands.
“So our emphasis to date has been making as many economies we can in our fixed costs. This has included reducing equipment costs by buying second-hand and making our machinery last longer; reducing our number of operations by direct drilling rather than drilling following min-till cultivation with fertiliser and slug pellets applied from the drill; and decreasing operating time by increasing the width and capacity of our equipment and only using it when the conditions suit.
“This has enabled us to reduce our operational costs steadily in recent years to just over £50/t at current yields. As they say, every little helps. Equally, at our margins we know increasing our average selling price by £25/t is worth almost as much as increasing our average yield by
0.5 t/ha. So this is an obvious area we need to focus on more.”
At Glebe Farm, Leadenham, Andrew Ward has been growing only High Oleic, Low Linolenic (HOLL) rape for the past seven years, earning valuable premiums every year. Across his light heath and various categories of heavy land (defined by their black-grass burden) he currently has around 210 ha of winter rape in the ground one year in every three or four.
Spring malting barley was his most profitable crop last year, following closely by the HOLL, with both well ahead of first wheat.
“We averaged 4.1 t/ha from our rape last season,” he reported. “This was the worst for several years. We normally do a good 4.5 t/ha. We didn’t do anything different and the crops looked just as good as usual, so it was really disappointing. It just goes to show how much we depend on the right weather conditions.”
Despite this, Andrew still got a good return for his efforts, though. With every element of overhead as well as operating costs taken into account – right down to a share of the phone bill – the rape cost him £1060/ha for a return of £1332/ha to deliver a decent bottom line.”
“Attention to detail is more important than ever with oilseed rape these days,” he insisted. “Nowhere is this more crucial than with establishment. Our home-designed, Simba Solo-based direct drilling set up seldom, if ever, gives us less than 95% establishment. This means we can confidently sow our hybrids at just 25 seeds/m2 on the light land and 30-40 seeds/m2 on the heavier ground. Which, in turn, means we can cope with – though not appreciate – the high cost of seed.
“As most of our rape is now going in after spring barley we have noticeably less trash to deal with at establishment than the winter wheat we’ve moved away from in the interests of black-grass control. This really helps. We also find that pressing – at a slight angle to the drill line – gives us far better consolidation than rolling for the best seed-to-soil contact.
“We see micro-nutrition as a big area for improvement,” Andrew Ward added. “Getting this better, through regular tissue as well as soil analyses, offers us the opportunity to use our N, P and K more efficiently. Switching to liquid fertilisation is another improvement we’re currently making to give us more flexibility in accurate application – especially with tall crops and in windy weather.
“With our black-grass burden, we have to use the cereal break to its maximum. So herbicides are a major cost. What would really help here is some good Clearfield HOLL varieties. That way we’d still be able to get the weed control we need without having to use a pre-em.”
Common approaches to OSR success shared by all three growers include:
- Per tonne production costs low enough to cope with market pressures;
- Single-pass establishment systems that improve timeliness and reduce costs;
- Robust, high performance varieties managed to save on inputs and minimise losses;
- Appropriate seed rates for the most economic and productive canopies;
- The least soil movement at establishment to minimise early weed growth;
- Seedbed fertilisation to help crops get away rapidly and reliably;
- Liquid fertiliser systems for the greatest application flexibility and economy;
- Machinery and labour management that minimises operating costs;
- Active crop marketing that makes the most of all available opportunities and tools.