Last week I visited the UK’s Cereals Event, a two day exhibition of all things arable including machinery, crop varieties, crop nutrition, fungicides, drones, precision farming and grain marketing. The event always attracts a wide range of international visitors looking at new ideas, technology and machinery. Here are my highlights from the trip:

Machinery

No-till planters have certainly become more common in Europe in recent years as awareness of soil health and conservation increases. The debate rages on about tines vs discs as a way of establishing crops through residue, and as ever it depends on soil type, residue levels, soil moisture and what you are planting.

The Weaving GD with its distinctive angled disc design attracted significant attention. The design was released two years ago to much acclaim, to reduce hairpinning in straw residues. Having seen the planter being used on several farms however, my experience is that on wet soils, significant side-wall compaction from the double disc can occur resulting in poor slot closure.

Also of interest was the Horsch Avatar disc planter, which is really very similar to the John Deere 90 Series opener but a slightly updated design. Notice the American style following wheel; in many countries these are removed and replaced with locally made designs to suit soil conditions. The Horsch planter also offers a high coulter pressure than the JD 750A planter – useful on dry, heavy soils.

The Weaving GD on the left with the heavily angled disc, and Horsch’s more conventional offering on the right.

The Weaving GD on the left with the heavily angled disc, and Horsch’s more conventional offering on the right.

Drones

The drone zone was a new feature at the show, where exhibitors showed off the latest fixed wing and quadcopter UAVs. I had some useful conversations with colleagues on the Association of Independent Crop Consultants stand; the consensus being that there remains a lot to learn about how best to use the images once maps of field issues or variation are created. Several of us are using them to hone variable seed rates to where greater crop competition is required for weed suppression, or to look at how plant populations in trials relate to crop canopy size and final yield. More on this in coming #ThinkAgronomy features.

Soil pits and cover crops

No serious farming event is complete without a proper soil inspection pit these days, and a walk through tour of the soil profile beneath a range of cover crops was very revealing. Although the soil is very shallow, the agronomist who advises on this farm told me that this very field last year grew 5.3 tons per acre of wheat (59 bags per acre!!!!). He regularly examines rooting depth and changes cultivation practice according to what he sees, to optimise soil structure and avoiding “recreational cultivation” as he puts it.

On the soil inspection pit they had deliberately compacted an area of barley next to an uncompacted area, to demonstrate the effects of restricted rooting. The crop was visible short and lacking nitrogen. Interestingly the tillage radish cover crop in the picture put its taproots down well below the compaction. NIAB TAG researchers tell me that Radish can be as effective as a subsoiler at reducing the bulk density of a soil by opening the structure.

Herbicides

Grassweed herbicides are a huge issue in Northern Europe, as they are in parts of Australia and here in Kenya. Very few new herbicides are coming to the market because of very high development costs, so the focus is on using sound rotations and cultural methods of control.

Rothamsted Research showed some work they had done that indicates increasing seed rates of barley by 30% to compete with weeds was drastically reducing weed seed return. Yield was slightly reduced in clean shambas in the absence of weeds, but increased where it was limited by serious populations of Blackgrass or Brome grass.  In my mind this leads towards varying seed rates across a field as required.

Fungicides

Regular readers of #ThinkAgronomy will know that I have always considered disease control to be a major limitation in our cereal crops. The SDHI fungicides on display at cereals once again showed big differences between untreated plots. Particularly impressive were the new seed treatments on offer, showing increased activity on fusarium, and seedling vigour.

Rhizoctonia is a particular problem in continuous cereal cropping; this shows the value of seed treatments, and a new product in Europe from Syngenta on the right.

Rhizoctonia is a particular problem in continuous cereal cropping; this shows the value of seed treatments, and a new product in Europe from Syngenta on the right.

Crop Varieties

Crop variety plots are planted on the site many months in advance with the same treatments that they would receive in the shamba. Barley varieties tend to travel well across the world as do many pulse varieties, so it was great to look at the latest genetics, which could potentially be entered into our KEPHIS National Trials. RGT Asteroid, Sienna and Laureate all show good disease resistance and grain quality, having been trialled by breweries across the world. Genetically these varieties have a yield potential 10-20% higher than established varieties such as Cocktail and Quench.

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