NIAB - National Institute of Agricultural Botany

Orson's Oracle

Past, present and future of KT

Posted on 13/07/2012 by Jim Orson

Despite the weather forecast we attended the first day, and sadly the only day, of the Great Yorkshire Show. It was crowded and the weather held until mid-afternoon, and in that rain-break I briefly read about the conclusions of the Defra Green Food Project. So, for me, the day provided a link between the past, present and future.

Many county, including the Yorkshire, and local agricultural societies were established in the 1830-40s; the Royal Agricultural Society of England in 1838 and Rothamsted in 1843. This was a time of greater domestic demand for food from an increasingly urbanised society - but before the steam engine had enabled the opening up of the Ukraine and the prairies and the cheap international transport of agricultural produce.KT in practice at NIAB in 1922 - discussing the impact of drought on potato trials

However, internal communications were rapidly improving through better roads and the establishment of railways. So there was an emphasis on and a reward for domestic food production. Improved communications not only meant more efficient transport of produce but also that farmers could get together more regularly to discuss the latest techniques.

It was really the start of what we now call knowledge transfer (KT), with the agricultural societies and shows playing a key role.

It was also a time of great technical innovation, particularly the understanding of soil nutrients, increased mechanisation and installation of field drainage. Coke of Holkham established better farm practices based on the Norfolk Four Course Rotation which was developed by ‘Turnip’ Townshend on the nearby Raynham Estates.

‘Turnip’ was perhaps the first great agronomist; he worked out how to crop all the land without having to resort to fallows and used the invention of perhaps the first great ‘tyre kicker’, Jethro Tull, in order to drill cereals and turnips in rows. This made it easier to weed crops and soon the horse hoe was introduced.

Coke established model farms, i.e. demonstration units, and open days, and farmers flocked to attend. As always, attendance was bolstered by the offer of a free lunch - nothing changes.

However, Coke complained that his ideas only spread by a mile a year, so KT was a problem even in those days and is a salutary lesson for those still seeking the ‘Holy Grail’ of KT. Some of the issues of KT were evident from Coke’s efforts. His system was great for the light soils of north Norfolk but perhaps less pertinent to heavy soils. I can imagine a couple of heavy land farmers kicking the soil at Holkham and saying it was not for them, but what a great lunch!

The reality is that there is no single ‘one-fits-all’ approach to KT; all that can be hoped for is that it is appropriate, timely and well co-ordinated. Each farmer and adviser is different and requires knowledge packaged in different ways. Some take more cognisance than others of what other farmers are doing; some are more risk-takers than others etc.

Researchers have been known to complain about poor KT preventing their pet projects from being adopted without thinking either about the risks involved or about the ease of management. Sadly, some researchers only present current findings in such a way as to try to secure further funding - farmers and advisers are very good at spotting that behaviour. Indeed, many of those responsible for KT in the past have underestimated the farmer’s and adviser’s ability to judge what they are seeing, reading or hearing and to assess if it is appropriate for their own businesses.

Well, that’s dealt with the past and perhaps a bit of the present. So what of the future? The Green Food Project is all about how increasing productivity can be balanced with improving the environment i.e. sustainable intensification. Now there’s a challenge for KT!

However, the authors fully acknowledge the future role of farmers and advisers in this process and have used the term Knowledge Exchange rather than KT. Other parts of the report suggest that as our climate gets warmer we may be growing more exotic crops such as chickpeas. I hope they’re easier to harvest than field peas or a year such as this will sort them out.

Our personal links with the past and future at the Great Yorkshire Show were reflected in our purchases. My wife bought me a liquorish whirl; a good and now traditional product of Yorkshire. I bought some rather nice olives; a new crop for the UK?

Finally, in this blog I may have overplayed the role of the UK in the development of farming systems. I say this because I was made aware of a salutary lesson a few years ago when visiting a research farm in a part of Australia well endowed with rainfall but not having the ability to get the water away from the fields. So they started to grow wheat on raised beds to increase the ‘freeboard’ for the cereal roots. A young researcher told me that she was excitedly explaining this new approach to some Chinese agronomists who quietly explained that they’d been doing the same for the past 1,500 years.

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This year’s wheat yields will be...?

Posted on 06/07/2012 by Jim Orson

I am sorry for the delay in writing this blog. Last weekend we met up with one of our daughters and her family. I think it was our 7-month old grand-daughter who gave me the sickness bug. Let’s say it was not the most successful of weekends away.

Despite feeling rotten (as only a man can) I managed to keep in touch with Steve Dorling of the University of East Anglia by e-mail. The reason for this communication was that on average (there are lots of assumptions in this blog, so beware) the end of June is halfway through grain fill of wheat. Steve had kindly offered to update me on the solar radiation and temperatures during this period (June 10th – 30th). You may remember that I talked of the importance of these two factors on grain fill in my blog ‘A late winner’ a couple of weeks ago.Wheat grain

Well, thanks to Steve, I now have the data for this first half of grain fill from two centres, at Wattisham in Suffolk and Watnall in Nottinghamshire, over the past 10 years.

I’ve compared this data with the regional wheat yields over the same period - my first observation is that in every year, except 2010, there has been typically 10-20% more radiation at Wattisham, near Ipswich, than at Watnall. Not only that - there is less year to year variation at Wattisham.

Steve explained that in the summer there is typically less convection and less cloud development the nearer you are to the coast due to cooler air temperatures; as I write, the sea temperature in the North Sea is still only 15°C!

This may partly explain why the Suffolk Hanslope clay soils yield more wheat than the Cambridgeshire Hanslope soils. Or perhaps that’s insulting the superb agronomic skills of the Suffolk farmer!

The second observation is that the good yielding years appear to have a minimum of average radiation for the site and below average temperatures at night. I emphasise that I’m only talking currently about the first half of grain fill and perhaps I can prepare a blog at the end of grain fill to give a more complete story.

The exception was 2011 - which seemed to have superb grain fill conditions with higher than average radiation and low temperatures at night, but below average yields. I think we all know what happened here - the early spring drought took its toll on the number of potential grain sites.

One of my first blogs a few months ago explained why we got yield responses to chlormequat in the absence of lodging in 2011. This plant growth regulator ensured that more grain sites survived that drought and this resulted in a yield benefit because the grain fill conditions were so good.

So what of 2012? Well, radiation so far at Wattisham has been just less than average for the site. However, radiation at Watnall has been very low, nearly as low as in 2007 (the time of the Hull floods). And, whereas night temperatures at Watnall were high in 2007 they have been low in 2012. Similarly, night temperatures have been low in Wattisham in 2012.

This seems to suggest that conditions for grain fill up to the end of June have been OK at Wattisham, but not good at Watnall. This is providing all things are equal. However, can all things be equal in a year when we have seen a huge challenge from BYDV, lorry loads of black-grass and fungicides only being able to damp down rather than control diseases?

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The bleeding edge?

Posted on 27/06/2012 by Jim Orson

Over the last month black-grass control experiments have been assessed and demonstrated. There is no doubt that the Flowering black-grassissue is how to control the weed with herbicides in dry autumns. We are now so dependent on the pre-emergence and early post-emergence herbicides and typically they will not work anywhere near their best when seedbeds are dry.

In addition, in many cases we have the legacy of a high seed return this year. The whole industry really knows what to do about it but many are looking for new and quick solutions. A quick solution would be a new and effective herbicide. We have known for years that this would not be the case. Until quite recently many farmers still firmly believed that the chemical companies were holding something back.

I have had queries about alternative approaches. Weed wiping has been suggested but there are severe practicalities in keeping the wick from touching the crop. Some farmers are suggesting that the industry should be allowed to return to straw burning. I do not think that this will provide all the answer, even if it were allowed (which, I am sure it won’t).

I was a technical adviser to MAFF when the ban was being discussed. There is no doubt that in many circumstances straw burning would provide some advantage and this was one of the arguments which was presented to MAFF. However, public sentiment was totally against burning.

What interests me is the current debate on the impact of direct drilling on black-grass populations. The impact of primary cultivation on black-grass numbers was assessed in the LINK funded series of trials on the greater understanding of the agro-ecology of the weed. Adopting the Simba Solo resulted in the highest black-grass numbers and the plough resulted in the lowest numbers. Direct drilling was somewhere in between.

So direct drilling was by no means the disaster that some had predicted. There could be several reasons for this. One is that much of the freshly shed black-grass seed is lost from the soil surface. A few years ago The Chadacre Agricultural Trust and The Morley Agricultural Foundation funded a PhD on losses of grass weed seeds from the soil surface. Losses were very significant in the autumn and winter but it was difficult to gauge the role of the different factors. There was, for the first time, the suspicion that some black-grass seeds were eaten by predators, possibly birds.

I believe that the proponents of a straw rake to encourage losses of seeds have a case. Pot trials show that black-grass seed germinates and establishes much faster if buried at a depth of 1 cm (0.5 inches) rather than lying on the surface. This may increase overall losses despite burying the seeds away from the soil surface where they are vulnerable to some losses.

In terms of chemical control with soil acting herbicides, one potential advantage of direct drilling is that the seedling and secondary roots of black-grass may be closer to the soil surface when compared to other approaches to primary tillage. Such differences could be of greater importance where there is significant resistance to the herbicides and when conditions are marginal for herbicide activity.

Of course, there is direct drilling and direct drilling. There is a huge difference in the level of soil disturbance between the different types of drill. This has resulted in observations that more black-grass survives between the row of some types of drill and along the row with other types of drill. This aspect could be critical in the longer term. Attention to detail is now the order of the day.

There are, of course, possible downsides to direct drilling. By treating only plants from seed shed in the previous crop, the further development of herbicide resistance will be maximised. This is assuming that resistance can get worse! In addition, there could be some unforeseen circumstances. In Australia, millipedes and earwigs have built up to such high levels in long term direct drilling that they are now damaging crop plants. I am not saying that this would occur on the UK, what I am saying is that there could be problems that we would not have predicted.

However, we will get an early warning because some UK farmers have been direct drilling over the last 10 years or more. Let us hope that they will be on the ‘leading edge’ rather than the ‘bleeding edge’.

If you want to get really depressed, listen to the black-grass blues

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A late winner?

Posted on 18/06/2012 by Jim Orson

The England match against Sweden at the weekend was a cliff-hanger. When Sweden scored their second goal I was moved to walk round the garden. Luckily I was back in front of the screen when England scored their second and third goals.England v Sweden

In many ways the match was a metaphor for wheat growing this year. We had a good establishment and thought we were leading, and then nature struck back. We’ve had pressure from grass-weeds, BYDV and septoria and also face further attacks from fusarium and potential lodging. What a year; at least there’s been no shortage of moisture this spring and early summer! So are we behind or drawing at the moment? More importantly, will we score a late goal to draw or even win?

To score a late goal we need a great grain filling period. This starts at flowering and ends at about 35% moisture content of the grain and during this period it needs to be cool and sunny.

It needs to be cool to extend the grain filling period over as many days a possible. The crop needs, according to varying sources, between 660 to 710 day degrees for grain filling. Day degrees are calculated by dividing the sum of the daily maximum and minimum temperature by two. So if the day’s maximum was 20C and the minimum was 10C, then that day there would have been 15 day degrees - the cooler the weather the longer the grain-fill.

It needs to be sunny to provide the solar radiation to fuel the process of photosynthesis in order to produce carbohydrate i.e. yield. It also helps if the nights are cool to minimise the crop respiring some of the gains made during the day. Crop physiologists’ views vary about how cool; some say below around 9C and others below around 12C. The common features of the good yield years of 1984 and 2008 were sunny cool days and cool nights. We would have had a huge national average yield in 2008 but for the wet harvest that badly delayed combining.

NIAB TAG's Stuart Knight at Cereals EventMuch of the talk at the Cereals Event last week was about wheat yields levelling off. A group of French researchers maintain that in their country this is mainly due to the trend of warmer weather negating the potential gains from variety improvement. Warmer weather has resulted in a reduction in the period of growth from stem extension to ripening and, more specifically in some years, a shorter grain fill period. These conclusions only feed the fire of climate change. However, we’ve seen cooler and warmer weather trends for centuries and so it is important not to jump to conclusions.

There’s no danger that a good UK wheat crop can’t store all the product of a good grain fill. Our varieties in New Zealand can have yields far higher than here. As I said in an earlier blog, this is because we have around the same number of days for grain fill but in New Zealand they have, on average, around 30% more solar radiation during this period. We have a New Zealand farmer staying with us and he attributes his ‘disappointing’ 2012 yields to lack of radiation (and associated very heavy rainfall) during grain fill. ‘Disappointing’ is a relative term. In 2010 he had one field average over 16 t/ha. This would be the world record if he had been minded to adopt the processes necessary to claim it. Interestingly, the variety was Cassius, a UK variety that was not widely grown over here.

So we are in the final part of the match. We need luck to draw or win but we are also carrying some injuries. There’s a lot of black-grass, more septoria on the yield-forming leaves than we would like and there is a nagging doubt about what fusarium may do concerning our ability to push any advantage home. In addition, many crops look a bit ‘wobbly’.

On a personal note, there was one winner from me walking around the garden after Sweden’s second goal. I noticed some slug activity in the bedding plants and treated accordingly. This led to lots of dead slugs on the soil surface on Saturday morning.

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Posted on 11/06/2012 by Jim Orson

Well, I am back refreshed from a holiday inFrance. The sugar beet and potatoes were not as advanced as would normally be expected, so it seems that they have also suffered from a cold spring.

Whilst I was away there was the mass demonstration against the GM trial at Rothamsted. It seems that ‘mass’ was the wrong description. The organisers said 400 turned up, the police said 200 and a farmer who went along to observe counted no more than 150. Presumably they could not use poor weather as an excuse for such a low turnout.

Do the low numbers suggest a tipping point in the so-called ‘GM debate’? It is hard to tell. Perhaps the self-appointed ‘guardians of our environment’ are not reflecting widespread public concern. Perhaps it also shows that you can cry wolf too often.

The claims that a single small and well regulated trial can despoil the environment have been used too many times. These same arguments were used for the GM crop field-scale evaluations, which were on a far larger area, and the GM potato trial at John Innes, and it’s clear that these have not left any negative legacy.

Last year approximately 160 million hectares of GM crops were grown around the world. As far as anyone knows they, and the GM crops grown over the previous 15 years, have had neither a negative environmental impact nor caused as much as a sneeze in humans. On the contrary, GM crops have led to environmental improvements in some parts of the world by facilitating better soil conservation methods and/or reducing insecticide use. In Canada, GM herbicide tolerance has resulted in canola being a ‘weed cleaning’ crop rather than a ‘dirty’ crop, enabling the widespread adoption of peas (a ‘dirty’ crop) into the rotation and may have resulted in an increase in biodiversity.Rothamsted action day

The general public are becoming aware of these facts and so it is getting progressively harder for those who oppose the technology to scare them. The extra ingredient in the Rothamsted trial was that the scientists did not sit quietly behind their barricades but actively joined the debate. They should be congratulated for doing so.

To achieve public support you have to earn trust and there was an interesting repercussion as a result of the call for mass action. Graham Jellis, speaking on behalf of the British Crop Production Council (BCPC) on Channel 4 News, said that GM crops now accounted 10% of the world crops. This statement obviously caused doubt in some minds, perhaps more so in those unsure of the technology.

Anyway this statement was checked by those who run a website that tries to verify statements made in the media. The site used all the usual tools for verifying this kind of data. Sources ofinformation were discussed, particularly the area of GM crops grown because inevitably it was primarily estimated by those selling GM crops. In addition, there was an interesting debate about what constitutes world cropping. Significantly, there was an acknowledgement that Graham was correct, and he responded by saying that his source ofinformation was the UK Food Standards Agency.

So there may now be a wider acceptance of the success of GM crops and also that the area being adopted is increasing significantly from year to year. This counters the activists’ argument that it is a failed and outdated technology.

I need to stress that I’m not suggesting that GM is ‘the be all and end all’ of agricultural progress, playing a significant role along with other plant breeding techniques. In previous blogs I have expressed caution about the adoption of GM crops without due attention to their possible impact on future cropping options. However, I cannot see how rejecting new forms of agricultural technology will enable us to return to the rural idyll, that some of the objectors seem to crave, without widespread food shortages.

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