Farmers have been rooting out which wheat varieties perform best without chemical inputs in the second year of an Innovative Farmers field lab.

The farmer-led research tested 22 different wheat varieties in plot trials on organic land to discover which had the traits most suitable for farming without chemical inputs.

The group, plus researchers, came together after they identified a knowledge gap in the wheat seed market since most commercial variety trials do not take place under organic conditions.

Its being run through Innovative Farmers – part of the Prince Charles’ initiative, the Duchy Future Farming Programme – united the farmers with the Organic Research Centre to co-design practical on-farm research. The trial is primarily taking place on Bradwell Grove Estate, in Oxfordshire.

For the second year, popular conventional varieties, like Zyatt and Skyfall, did not perform as well as other varieties compared within the trial’s organic conditions. This demonstrated the importance of organic testing to discover the varieties with those traits suitable for non-chemical farming, said a spokesman.

Assessments included disease susceptibility, protein levels, yield and growth characteristics, which provide valuable insight to farmers on variety choice. Some farmers have since used the trials to inform decisions on trialling new varieties at field-scale.

Adrian Hares, of Roundhill Farm, trialled three of the varieties on his own farm at field level so he could assess them using farm-scale equipment. He said: “The advantage for us in being involved in this field lab is that it’s a trial on our own ground, on our own soil type, with our own weed burden and control regime.

“For example, one of the varieties was very tall, which a lot of people like, but actually we need to be able to top weeds above the height of the crop because of our specific machinery. So, it is interesting to see what qualities apply to our situation.

“Collaboration is the way forward – standing in someone’s field and seeing what they’ve done is really valuable and we also use that time to compare techniques. Sharing ideas is a great benefit to Innovative Farmers and doing trials in this way, with researchers helping us, makes the data much more valuable.”

The trial is now in its third year and will continue to test wheat varieties in organic conditions to provide insights for any farmer looking to avoid or reduce inputs.

Dominic Amos, crop researcher at the Organic Research Centre, said: “It’s difficult for organic farmers to have confidence in wheat varieties as most current testing doesn’t give enough weight to the nutrient scavenging and weed suppression traits that organic farmers rely on much more in the absence of fertiliser and herbicide regimes.

“This group of farmers has, therefore, taken matters into their own hands to see how varieties perform under organic conditions and results are showing that less commonly used varieties could actually work really well under organic conditions.

“They are also finding that certain traits work better for different agri-ecological systems, proving that what works for one farmer may not work for another. By leading research and working as a small community to test the varieties, they are providing vital insight for the whole arable sector by giving confidence to organic farmers and those looking to reduce their inputs,” he added.

Key findings:

Evolution, Costello and Revelation were the highest yielding in this past year of the trial, but they also had the lowest harvested protein yield.

The European variety, Mortimer, which had recently been dropped due to a lack of interest from the non-organic sector, performed well for a second year in both grain and protein yields.

Results used to identify varieties that might outperform the yield protein trade-off, also known as the grain protein deviation, eg Mv Fredericia for milling wheat and Costello for high yielding feed wheat. Hallfreda – a new Swedish variety with bunt tolerance – was tested for the first time and showed good potential as it gave high grain and protein yields, with resilience to disease and a good canopy which appealed in terms of weed competition.

Heritage wheat variety, Maris Widgeon, performed as well as commonly grown varieties like Skyfall, both in terms of yield and protein levels.

Ehogold, Edelmann, Mv Fredericia (AWC1) and Skyfall showed the most susceptibility to yellow rust, which was the most damaging foliar disease for organic farmers. However, the 2019 season was particularly bad for this and most varieties in the trial had resistance scores reduced compared to the previous year.

At two field meetings in spring and summer, farmers selected favourites based on their own desired qualities. This revealed different varieties with specific traits were needed to meet the needs of different farming systems.

For example, those who used inter-row hoe weeding systems, preferred Mv Fredericia because it was tall and erect at early stem extension. However, those who used other management systems preferred Montana for its even canopy, high ground cover and more prostrate growth.


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