Benefits of SPot Farms highlighted in North East

AHDB’s Strategic Farm Network includes livestock, arable and potato farms and includes more than 50 Monitor and Strategic farms around the country. These farms, which are independent commercial enterprises, are a key part of AHDB’s knowledge transfer and trials strategy.

Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference in January, AHDB CEO Jane King said; “Last year, we made it clear that a priority for the AHDB would be to speed up innovation and productivity growth on farm to help farmers prepare for Brexit and beyond. We’ve been busy coordinating our knowledge exchange work and building on the success of our Monitor and Strategic Farms. Now we have an impressive network of businesses all looking to adapt and improve through the power of farmer-to-farmer learning.”

Last month AHDB Potatoes unveiled its latest Strategic Potato (SPot) Farm in the heart of the East Midlands and North East potato production region. The news was announced at a meeting at South Cave near Hull which also shared results from other SPot Farms around the country.

As Graham Bannister, Knowledge Exchange Manager for Northern England pointed out; “We do all this work around the UK but we don’t bring it here [to the North East]. However, that is going to change,” he said. “Having a Strategic Farm in the North is going to be very good for the region.”

However, the essence of the meeting was to update growers on the work being carried out at SPot Farms elsewhere in the country, and so Knowledge Exchange Managers and agronomists presented the results of some of their local projects.

Claire Hodge described work undertaken at family-owned Bruce Farms near Perth in the Strathmore Valley. “The farm wanted additional support to give lots of measuring and monitoring,” she said, explaining the farm’s rationale for becoming a SPot Farm. “We wanted to challenge current practice; we have to embrace new technology and use what’s out there.”

The result has been a three-year project with Scottish Government funding to conduct field scale trials looking at a number of factors, which in 2017 included cultivating at shallower depths, using cover crops to improve soil structure over winter, reducing nitrogen inputs and modifying seed spacing to maximise yields for specific markets. “All of our trial crops go to Albert Bartlett and we are looking at pack-out and waste figures,” Claire added. “We’re not just looking for yield, but we are also looking for size and quality.”

Cultivation trials in 2016 looked at using a Tillerstar, reduced bed tilling and no bed tilling (as recommended by NIAB CUF) compared to the farm’s normal cultivation regime. “We looked at reducing bed forming to six inches rather than 12 inches in one acre strips across the field. We were really astounded by the results which gave an 11 t/ha increase in packed yield,” she explained. In terms of cover cropping, she admitted to having some scepticism before the trials due to the ‘fashionable’ nature of the topic. “We set up the crops this season and it’s been much more successful than I thought it would be,” she conceded. The next key area of research is in reducing nitrogen applications, but Claire stressed that the economics of everything they try are fully assessed.

Further south, the Eleveden Estate in East Anglia hosts SPot Farm East, and Farm Manager Andrew Francis has helped with trials looking at the interaction of nitrogen and irrigation, the effects of irrigation on common scab control, and PCN control. The nitrogen experiments were conducted by NIAB CUF and Dr Mark Stalham presented the results which were obtained using a crop of crisping variety Brooke.

“It’s about best practice,” he stressed. “Eleveden’s land is light and possibly not typical potato growing land, so they wanted to know if they could retain nitrogen in the soil better.” Irrigation was used to try to induce leeching so that the team could see if any of the application techniques they tested retained more N. These included the farm’s standard three-way split application; putting all the N in the seedbed; and placing it on the planter. In addition all three treatments received a base dressing of 20 kg of N as diammonium phosphate (DAP) before cultivation.

“There were no significant results here, but placement reduced yields on average,” explained Mark. “There was no significant evidence over two years of trials for differences in yield or quality from the split or standard dressings. For two years we have been using a tool that measures nitrate concentration (in soil water) and we are not producing N from the profile. If you get a rapidly growing crop then it takes up early N.”

Irrigation trials by Mark at Eleveden have also been used to inform an updated edition of Seasonal water management for potatoes, which was also launched at the event. This includes work to confirm the best irrigation regimes for common scab control on different soils and for varieties with different levels of susceptibility to the disease.

It also looks are how to identify the ideal period for scab control, and when to stop irrigation so that other disease problems associated with over-watering are not compounded.

Elveden’s potato agronomist is Graham Tomalin from VCS (UK) Ltd, who presented work on the herbicide challenge facing growers following the loss of linuron. He also reported on 2016 trials looking at varietal resistance and tolerance to Globodera pallida potato cyst nematodes. “PCN has the biggest effect on yield and quality for the growers I work with and levels of infestation are often higher than soil tests suggest as you can’t detect eggs in the soil below a certain threshold.”

PCN can cause both yield loss due to feeding on the roots and a reduction in quality and skin finish due to spotting caused by direct feeding on the tubers. VCS conducted replicated trials with 12 varieties on a site known to be infected with G. pallida in order to investigate varietal differences in resistance and tolerance, and the performance of each variety both with and without nematicide treatment.

Graham stressed that, when discussing PCN, resistance is the ability of a variety to affect the multiplication of PCN whereas tolerance is the ability of a variety to produce a reasonable yield when grown in the presence of PCN. Therefore resistance is required for long-term PCN management, while tolerance may be desirable from an immediate economic perspective.

The results confirmed pallida resistance in a number of new varieties and also suggested that Royal, which has an official Pa 2/3 resistance score of just three, is also resistant. In terms of tolerance, the most tolerant varieties tested were Cara, Lanorma, Performer and Royal, while Eurostar and Forza showed moderate levels of tolerance.

“As agronomists we are faced with new varieties and we get very little data on tolerance at the beginning,” Graham pointed out. “We want to target the right variety to the right place. PCN is very much a long term issue and growers need to act now to keep their soils viable in a six or seven year rotation. I don’t think that you can score tolerance from 1 to 9 like you can resistance. It’s more of a series and can be variable.”

Nitrogen rates are a hot topic at all of the SPot farms, not only for economic and environmental reasons, but also because of the effects that the nutrient can have on crop growth and quality. AHDB Potatoes’ Knowledge Exchange Manager for the West, Anne Stone, discussed work at the Dillington Estate (SPot Farm West), which is now looking at how to improve its cover cropping. Last year the focus was on three different nitrogen rates on a crop of Electra grown for packing by Branston.

“Electra is quite indeterminate, although it hasn’t been formally assessed yet,” commented Anne. “Yields were higher at the higher nitrogen rates, but probably not significantly. Dry matter was on the low side with last year’s wet harvest, but the dry matter was lower at higher nitrogen rates.” The results also showed that higher N rates delayed skin set by up to two weeks. “High nitrogen rates not only increase costs, but they can cause issues with dry matter and skin set,” she pointed out.

The importance of the SPot Farm programme and these trials was underlined by AHDB Potatoes Chair, Sophie Churchill, who is now coming to the end of her first year in office. “We are in an increasingly consolidated industry and AHDB’s role is to be objective and there for everyone,” she stressed. “We have to offer value for money to all, and when asked if we are for growers or agronomists I reply that we are for everyone in the industry.

“The spine of AHDB is its knowledge exchange and a thirst for knowledge is not correlated with the size of your enterprise. Very few people come away from visiting a SPot farm without learning something which they can then apply on farm,” she said.

The event finished with the official announcement of AHDB’s 47thStrategy and Monitor Farm which will be hosted by RJ & AE Godfrey, a mixed arable farm in North Lincolnshire which grows around 440 ha of maincrop potatoes for the packing market each year, in a rotation including peas, sugar beet, wheat, oilseed rape and linseed.

Director Alex Godfrey said: “We’re always interested in what we can do better when it comes to growing potatoes and we thought this was a fantastic opportunity to see some of the newest developments applied on our farm. We hope this will benefit others in the region as well. We’re looking forward to sharing what we do and hearing what ideas other growers have. We know there is some fantastic knowledge out there.”

Farm Manager Will Gagg explained that the farm grows on both a sandy loam on the Lincolnshire Wolds and silts on the Isle of Axholme. He added; “The wold and the silt soils provide completely different challenges. On the wold land, we get fantastic yield, but it is harder to hold skin-finish in store long-term. On silts we get a fantastic skin-finish that holds well in store but moisture in the soil can make lifting conditions very tricky.”