Saturday, 14 December 2013
New Zealand Day 17 - Wheat Crops Under the Microscope
The first meeting of the day was with Eric Watson who farms just to the East of Ashburton. A huge thank you to Eric for taking the time to meet up, as I only made contact a couple of days ahead of the meeting. Eric has a great farm of about 490 Ha which can be irrigated through various pumps and bore holes, with the bulk of the farm being on a ring main with variable speed drives for the pumps. This means that irrigation equipment can be moved without needing to switch equipment off when moving rain runs and as irrigators stop and start the pump speed slows or accelerates to match the loading saving electricity. All of the crops are irrigated on the farm with wheat crops receiving somewhere around 200mm. IN addition to wheat Eric is growing seed crops of rye grass, fescue grasses, plantain, chicory, botchy (Chinese Cabbage) and spinach.
The crops that we looked at where incredibly clean with a robust fungicide strategy being used. Every day the crop stays green during senescence a further 200Kk of grain is grown. So keep it green for a week that's nearly 1.5t of extra yield! Many crops have been under pressure from septoria Eric's fungicide had wooded well and the crops where very clean top to bottom.
Seed rate and variety choice took up a lot of our conversational time as large crops of wheat require a population that is not too thick in order to enable light to intercept the canopy and get to the second and third leaves. Shorter more upright flags will act as solar panels rather than big floppy leaves, something that I found hard to believe but logical after I gave it a little thought. Seed varieties and numbers are not the whole story, nitrogen rates and timings are also key factors in growing large crops of wheat. I left Eric and headed south for a lunch meeting with fellow Nuffield Scholar Michael Tayler who farms further down the coast. Michael grows wheat, potatoes, barley, peas and carrots. These carrots are grown for juicing and are larger and sweeter than a normal carrot. The juice is pressed and stored before being shipped and sold as a health food drink. Michael did his Nuffield project on 'New Technologies and Arable Farming'. So we had a lot in common!
After lunch I drove still further south to Oamaru to meet Chris Dennison, who held the Guinness Book of Records Wheat yield at 15.015t/H in 2003. Chris and Kay's farm is literally right on the coast, with a 50ft drop from the last field down onto the beach. This climate, coupled with fairly heavy clay, with good structure means high yields are always a potential. In addition to wheat Chris also grows rye grass for seed, oilseed rape and spring barley. Rye grass is potentially the highest return but also has the highest risk. There are opportunities to make 'balage' as a first cut, then seed and then dairy support or balage again from these fields. It demonstrates to me that way that opportunities are sought out over the whole cycle, not just focusing on the one crop in the field.
Chris grows several varieties of wheat, from a couple of breeders including one from the UK in the highest yielding situations, including Oakley. A planting date, equivalent to (UK) 1st week September and plant populations calculated. The net result is a good plant population with somewhere about 600 ears depending of tiller numbers. This is slightly in the lap of the gods depending on the kindness of the winter and how much tillering the crop does. A fairly intense fungicide strategy is required to keep the leaves green, for the extra yield at the end of maturity. The yield comes from a combination of ears per m2, numbers of grains per and weight of the individual grain sites. Irrigation is also applied through the later part of the season to help with grain fill. Chris is the Chairman of the local community irrigation board. Water is taken from the Waitaki River and put through the irrigation scheme. About 15% of the total annual river flow is used for agriculture, so there's plenty to spare.
It was a fabulous opportunity for me to spend time with Chris and his family. I learnt so much about the crop canopy structure and what is needed to achieve it. After the trip around the farm and a delicious roast lamb dinner, we headed out to the local pub with a neighbouring farmer, which was highly entertaining. Thank you, once again to everyone for hosting me today it was great fun!