Baselining and plant health are the focus for the first year of AHDB’s Strategic Cereal Farm Scotland programme, with a series of on farm demonstrations looking at soil and plant health, pests, pollinators and natural enemies.

Funded by AHDB, the project bring cutting-edge research, new innovations and practical farming together with the aim of making farming more economically and environmentally resilient. The six-year programme will host a structured combination of short and long-term field and farm-scale trials and demonstrations.

David Aglen, farms manager at Balbirnie Home Farms, Freuchie, Fife, is the host of the Scotland strategic farm and is working with SRUC and ADAS to run the programme of activity. He said: “We are well underway with our baselining work looking at soil and plant health, along with pests, pollinators and natural enemies across the farm. We have also recently started our first trial focused on plant nutrition.

“Our goal is to apply the right nutrients this season to improve crop health so it can withstand any disease. We are looking at whether or not plant health can be improved through a tailored nutrition programme, and hopefully reduce, or do away with completely, the need for fungicides.

“Throughout the growing season, we are using a refractometer to take Brix meter readings every week at the same time of day, in similar locations in the same field. A drop in the Brix measurement is being used as an indication of a drop in plant health.

The Scottish Farmer: The Brix testing kit being used in the field gives a quick assessment of any nutrient deficiencies

"Brix is already used in the livestock sector to assess colostrum quality and in the horticulture sector to look at sugars in plants. It’s a quick, simple and effective solution, and the meters are not expensive either.

“When the meter value falls below the threshold of 10, immediate tissue testing follows. A bulk tissue sample is sent off for analysis and the results are sent back to the trials group within a couple of days.

"We then make a decision as to which micronutrients or macronutrients should be added to correct any nutrient deficiencies that have been identified in the crop,” he added.

Chris Leslie, AHDB’s arable knowledge exchange manager said: “Brix meter readings provide a quick snapshot of crop health; we are simply using the sugars as an indication of the plant’s health status throughout the season.

“Our purpose is to improve plant health using testing and analysis so that it is not impacted by disease to the same extent. Tissue testing is an important part of IPM and is an effective way of measuring what is actually getting into the plant. It allows deficiencies to be identified before symptoms are seen or yield is affected.

"We are using it as the basis of the nutrition trial to help us better understand seasonal plant health changes and the crops’ vulnerability to disease.”

No fungicides will be used in the Brix-led approach. This is to see if nutrition alone can improve plant health enough to withstand disease. The first year will be baselining activity and a few years’ data is needed to be able to make any correlations between plant health and Brix.

Brix can be affected by changes in the weather which is why it’s taken so regularly, and tissue testing carried out when there is a trend of reduced values over a short period.

This year, the trial is being run on one winter wheat field at Balbirnie. However, it will be replicated in future years to collect more data and further explore the relationship between crop health and nutrition, using Brix and tissue testing more fully.

The nutrition trial has been set in a field of Istabraq winter wheat and will use tailored nutritional treatment based on plant deficiencies deduced from the tissue analysis and Brix assessments – no fungicide.

Other crop assessments will include GAI, biomass, plant counts and foliar/stem disease assessments.