Vigilance and a shrewd approach to grain growing, while looking at ways to innovate, has ensured that a Borders arable grower has remained in the top 5% of producers.
By maximising outputs and keeping disease at bay, Neil Armstrong, who farms in partnership with his father, James and brother, David, manages more than 1100 ha across owned, contract farmed and tenancies from Thornton Mains, south of Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland.
Winter wheat is the main crop and makes up a substantial part of our arable enterprise at 500 ha. Neil said: “We like to keep it simple. Ultimately, we’re pushing for yields and in a good year we’re hitting 11.5 to 12t/ha, while in an average one we’re at 10.5t/ha.
“It’s a high input, high output system geared towards maximising yield,” added Neil, who uses variety choice to spread workload and risk. “Grafton and Graham help us to target the early drilling window, sometimes drilling as early as the end of August. Both have been heavy duty Group 4 varieties that yield reliably. 
“Dickens is a variety that has been delivering locally and is proving popular in the Borders for that reason. Finally, we plant Viscount as it combines well and has been robust and a stalwart for the last five to six years, plus Kielder for its performance as a second wheat.”
The biggest factor, though, is the weather. “The day you drill you have the potential to grow a crop that yields 21t/ha, but every day that goes by, factors such as weather and resulting disease, hampers the crop's ability to yield to full potential. 
“When it comes to disease, septoria is always going to be the one we’re chasing. It’s our main yield robber. We have to use a robust fungicide programme to ensure we’re maximising outputs. 
“At T0 and T1 we focus on Bravo for septoria and Cherokee where we have higher risk varieties. For T2, we rely on a powerful SDHI, which we follow with Proline at T3 to keep the ear clean from disease. It’s all about protecting new leaf growth and keeping the crop clean and green to maximise yield potential.”
For more than 15 years, the family’s operation has been host to the Syngenta Berwick Innovation Centre, running extensive trials looking at all the latest innovations to keep one step ahead. 
“The trial site and plots can cover 2 ha which has provided some really useful insight over the years,” he pointed out. “The hybrid barley work has been of particular interest as we’re able to see how variations of seed rate, nitrogen and glyphosate timing all affect the bushel weights. 
“We applied this knowledge onto our 120 ha made up of Belfry and Bazooka to make sure we’re getting the most from our crop,” he added. “Fungicide programmes are another area where we’ve really been able to test out and see the results of varying programmes.” 
For example, having seen Elatus Era, Syngenta’s new SDHI, perform well in the trials, he will incorporate this persistent, broad-spectrum fungicide into his T2 plans for the coming season.
“Our approach is pretty lean and mean here,” he said. “We aim to be as efficient as possible with operations, which hopefully keeps us at the top of our game. 
"This approach is vital. I have to know what’s the next big thing that will increase our outputs and how to make it work in our system,” he added.