The vast differences between arable farming in North-east Scotland and Lincolnshire were highlighted at the recent Scottish Agronomy conference, in Perth.

Twice UK Arable Farmer of the Year, Andrew Ward and the current holder of that award, Scott Campbell, have both made significant changes to their management systems over the last five or six years.

Scott’s changes involved upgrading an out-dated farming system on the 415 ha at Kirkton of Kinellar, Garioch, which he farms in partnership with his father and uncle, while Andrew has been forced to make changes due to the problem of blackgrass on his 650 ha in Lincolnshire.

Andrew last spoke at this conference in 2013 when half of his farm was in winter wheat and 43% in oilseed rape. Now, the rotation is more balanced with a lot of spring crops to manage blackgrass issues.

He said: “In 2011, ‘12 and ‘13, I was concerned that yields were dropping and costs increasing. Since I started the blackgrass programme, this has reversed and I have reduced my herbicide costs in winter wheat to £65 per ha from £110.”

Blackgrass is now the most important herbicide-resistant weed in Western Europe and heavy clay, min-till cultivation methods and dominance of winter crops in Lincolnshire has made it a massive problem. Andrew explained: “One head of blackgrass contains 500 seeds, one plant has 20 to 30 tillers, therefore it is massively prolific. Our worst case scenario has been wheat yielding less than two tonnes per ha, which is not worth harvesting.”

His control methods have included growing more spring crops, spraying the worst affected areas with glyphosate and hand-rogueing. He added: “Our hand rogueing costs have been as high as £30,000 per year, but our herbicide bill has reduced and we are definitely getting on top of the problem now.

“The cost of chemically treating blackgrass on an average farm in my area, with no assurance of effectiveness, would be £222/ha. I spent £143/ha last year on a combination of glyphosate and hand rogueing, but my control has been 99% effective.”

He pointed out that late drilling of winter wheat (ie the end of October) could see an advantage of up to six tonnes per ha in yield. However, this policy has backfired on farmers in the area this year as autumn floods meant few had any winter wheat in at all. Andrew only managed to get 8% of his own winter wheat sown and 4% of his oilseed rape, so he plans to grow a lot more spring wheat in 2020.

Andrew demonstrated how, despite inputs being up, his cost of production per tonne of winter wheat had reduced from £119 in 2013 to £108 in 2019, thanks to increased yields. Unusually, he included ‘overheads’ which include everything paid for by the farm – from electricity and mobile phone to maintenance, labour and secretarial costs. The total is calculated and divided by the cropping area.

Luckily, in Scotland, blackgrass has not yet become a big problem, although Andrew Gilchrist, managing director of Scottish Agronomy, said Scottish farmers should be prepared for it coming north of the Border, just like other problems such as cabbage stem flea beetle in OSR.

Since coming back to the family farm in 2009, Scott had researched and put in place ways to reduce lime and fuel costs, tackle compaction and drainage issues and improve the marketing of crops. He said: “I will only invest in technology if it pays, but GPS targeted spreading of lime is a good example of that, it has saved me £59 per ha.”

Changing to liquid fertiliser had also been beneficial effect – he is achieving better coverage on headlands, increasing yields in these areas by 30%. Using farmyard manure from a neighbour in a ‘straw for muck’ deal, had also saved him £25 per ha on fertiliser in the last three years. He also switched to using minimal cultivations where possible by investing in a Horsch Pronto drill which has reduced his fuel use by 50%.

One of his biggest changes, however, had been to the rotation, which now included a green manure crop with winter wheat, winter and spring barley and oilseed rape.

He said: “I find the benefits of the green manure crop are numerous. It dries up the field, fixes nitrogen, adds organic matter and is a great entry for early wheat. I believe I am saving up to 20% on purchased fertiliser and yields have improved because the soil health is better.”

Scott’s inputs for winter wheat, including sprays, nutrition and machinery costs, are £835 per ha but with increased yields to an average 9.8 tonnes per ha, this means costs are £84.82 per tonne. That was a stat that impressed the judges of the Arable Farmer of the Year award, as did improvement in winter barley yields to 10.13 t/ha over three years.

He also spread risk by growing different varieties of each of cereal to suit different fields/soils and for different markets and he paid particular attention to marketing.