NIAB - National Institute of Agricultural Botany

Orson's Oracle

Royal approval

Posted on 05/02/2014 by Jim Orson

This is the 100th Orson’s Oracle and there is no better way to start it than by saying that for once I agree with one of Prince Charles’ pronouncements.  

Last week he said before an invited audience “With a barrage of sheer intimidation, we are told by powerful groups of deniers that the scientists must be wrong and we must abandon all our faith in so much overwhelming scientific evidence”.  He was talking about climate change but I am sure that those who support conventional farming and the regulated introduction of GM crops will fully support that sentiment on the grounds that good science, correctly interpreted, should always be listened to and respected.

However, it is important to point out that excellent ‘laboratory’ or ‘theoretical’ science may not always provide the answers and field testing is essential. That is why field testing of GMs is so important, but of course there are “powerful groups of deniers” who have used intimadatory measures to prevent these going ahead.

Field testing is essential because there are good examples where excellent and robust laboratory research and theories have not been delivered in the field. One example with which I became closely involved concerned spray application. Large spray droplets produced by conventional nozzles are not retained by a target plant and small ones will drift. Hence, it seems logical to produce a spray that is solely comprised of droplets that are neither too large nor too small. This is the basis of Controlled Droplet Application (CDA).

Tests with CDA in the laboratory were indeed very promising, with individual target plants having four times as much spray retained on their foliage when compared to a standard flat fan nozzle. So far, so good. However, in independently run field trials, CDA proved to be, at best, as good as conventional nozzles and often inferior. Naturally, there was a huge furore between those who were involved in the independent field trials and those who were selling CDA machines.

However, to the credit of some laboratory researchers, the reasons why the theory was not delivered in the field were identified. The droplets from CDA machines used in the trials fell relatively slowly downwards under the influence of gravity in an almost vertical trajectory. This meant that they were not good in penetrating a crop canopy. In addition, the pesticides were predominately deposited on the horizontal parts of the target plant. Research subsequently proved that pesticides are far more effective if they are deposited on the vertical surfaces of target plants.Spray patterns

There were two other reasons for the disappointing results from CDA application. Although it was proven in field trials that on average there could be more pesticides on the target, the variation between the amounts of deposit on individual plants was far larger than with conventional nozzles. Finally, CDA involved very low volumes and some pesticides were too concentrated for optimum uptake by the plant. I witnessed trials where some herbicides just ‘shot-holed’ the leaves of otherwise unaffected susceptible weeds.

The following development in spray application was electrostatic sprayers. These also failed to reach their theoretical advantages in the field because the charged pesticide spray stuck to the wrong part of the crop canopy and/or target plant for good activity. However, I wish to point out that I am not a spray application ‘denier’ and hand-held CDA machines are being used very successfully in many parts of the world. This is particularly so with pesticides whose the position on the plant has little impact on their efficacy and which can maintain their efficacy in very low volumes and also where there is no canopy to penetrate. You’ve guessed it; total weed control with glyphosate is a prime use with these machines.

One other theory which does not deliver in field trials is that the level of Soil Mineral Nitrogen (SMN) has a major influence on the optimum amount of bag nitrogen required by the crop. All the UK field trial databases show that this is not generally true for winter wheat, oilseed rape and sugar beet. I suspect that it is also generally not true for the other arable crops as well. In wheat, which has by far the largest field trials database, the optimum dose of bag nitrogen is only demonstrably reduced by levels of SMN in excess of the RB 209 N Index 3; i.e. in the minority of situations.

Fertiliser spreadingNitrogen is a major and polluting input and we urgently need to know why SMN typically has so little influence on the optimum amount of bag N required. I may have just come across a clue in a paper by some Belgian soil scientists. In their research, the more efficiently the bag nitrogen was used by wheat, the less the amount of N was taken up from the soil. So the wheat plots in this research were using SMN more as a back-up than a primary source of this nutrient. This may be one of the reasons why differences in low-moderate SMN levels have no influence on the optimum amount of bag N required by the crop. David Jones, the manager of Morley Farms, suggested an analogy for this suspected preferential uptake of bag N by wheat “why drive down the road to buy a sandwich when your fridge is full of them?”

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You can fool someā€¦

Posted on 29/01/2014 by Jim Orson

The quote “you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time” is attributed to Abraham Lincoln. It came to mind when I watched the TV reports on the floods on the Somerset Levels. The Environment Agency has, according to the reports, spent a huge amount of money on a bird sanctuary but little on cleaning out the river. Apparently this, as well as cleaning out ditches, is bad for biodiversity. I suggest that three weeks under water is even worse for biodiversity.

I have admired Owen Patterson’s approach to GMs and badgers. He has looked at all the facts and taken a stand. Now he has to look at the all the facts on the value of well maintained water channels, both in terms of getting water away and the impact of such maintenance on biodiversity.

Farmers in the flooded areas are reporting finding carcasses of wild animals, including badgers. I must give it to any burrowing animal that tries to establish itself in an area with such high water tables. I realise that the situation is “complicated”, to quote the Environment Agency, but to let water channels silt up that previous generations had thought necessary to keep clear was a ‘brave’ decision. I have been reading for years the concerns of farmers on this issue. Some would regard farmers’ comments as biased but it also has to be accepted that comments from single issue pressure groups are perhaps more biased because, unlike farmers, they do not feel obliged to weigh up all the issues.Flooding on the Somerset Levels

It is so easy for single issue pressure groups to influence public opinion and decision makers. They tend to ignore the downsides and concentrate on the “cuddly” view of nature. This puts pressure on the media. Everyone with the full benefit of all the facts knows that badgers are not cuddly. They prey on a range of wildlife. Those with less than a full knowledge, including some of the media, can be influenced into thinking that these “cuddly” creatures would not do such a thing. This could explain why in a BBC programme on a hedgehog sanctuary a comment that badgers are a major predator was allegedly edited out.

The same applies to articles on hedgehogs in the Sunday Times. Not once is the predatory nature of the badger mentioned and one of the reasons given for the decline in the hedgehog is, according to this paper, (inevitably) pesticides! The same paper has just published an article under the banner headline ‘Farmageddon’ which again, perhaps in ignorance, has misquoted the countryside survey data on hedgerows. Apparently, 16,000 miles disappeared between 1998 and 2007. It forgets to mention that much of this is due to farmers, for environmental reasons, letting hedges grow above a certain size where they are no longer defined as hedges. Also it was not mentioned that there are huge losses of hedgerows associated with new roads and other non-farming developments. I personally know of no hedge removal by farmers during this period but I know of many hedges that have been planted but these may have not yet have grown sufficiently tall to be classified as hedges in the survey.

Sometimes, the comments of single issue groups have a sinister edge implying that we all have to change our lifestyle and dietary habits in order to fit in with their own very narrow agendas.

 There is little doubt that agriculture has environmental issues. This is inevitable because natural vegetation has to be destroyed to grow food. Getting the balance right is proving very difficult to achieve and will become even more difficult as the pressure of an increasing and more affluent population grows. Decisions should be based on all the facts and not just the views of single issue pressure groups. Life is more complicated than that. It should also be highlighted that farmers are not the only ones to “meddle” in nature. Protecting badgers has led to a reduction in biodiversity.

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Wheat under pressure from pesticide resistance

Posted on 22/01/2014 by Jim Orson

I have just attended the AICC conference. As always, it was a great conference with record numbers of agronomists and industry attending. Delegates heard a range of technical papers as well as presentations on the future trends in food consumption and the latest on the new arrangements for CAP.

In today’s, and future markets, farmers who produce broad-acre crops have to be globally competitive and this has resulted in the large areas of wheat in the UK and Ireland. In this context, one passing comment that really intrigued me at the conference was that in Ireland resistance to the triazoles in Septoria tritici has resulted not only in significantly higher fungicide costs in winter wheat but also the fear that the disease will not be adequately controlled in high pressure years. 

This has led farmers to reconsider the place of wheat in rotations and has already resulted in less second wheats. Some farmers are even contemplating replacing an area of their first wheats with winter barley. I find this very sobering because Ireland has the highest average wheat yields in the world.Sprayer

These yields are due to the fact that the blend of good soils and a favourable climate provide the necessary ingredients for high yields. Where Ireland scores over East Anglia is that there is typically sufficient moisture available during grain fill for the wheat to exploit solar radiation more fully. The downside is that a good supply of rainfall also encourages high levels of septoria. This has necessitated a high fungicide requirement in order to exploit the potential yields and has consequently resulted in selection for high levels of resistance to the triazoles.

There is no doubt that resistance is increasing the use of fungicides in order to control septoria. Does this mean that over time the costs of protecting crops will also increase? 

I cannot remember the cost of the triazoles in the very late 1970s when they were first introduced to the market. I do remember that at that time the cost of isoproturon in Britain was around £25/ha. One application to control black-grass was usually sufficient. After taking into account inflation that £25 is now worth £110, not far from what farmers are currently paying in order to attempt to control black-grass. However, other things have changed.  

Wheat yields have gone up but not sufficiently to compensate for the relative reduction in the price of wheat. It was around £100/tonne in 1980, which is now worth £430. It is difficult to draw conclusions but these few facts do demonstrate the exceptional value of Atlantis when it was first introduced and gave effective and consistent levels of black-grass control.

However, regardless of the relative costs of herbicides, black-grass control is now less reliable because of resistance. Again the prime example is (or was!) isoproturon. During the 1970s, it averaged 99% control of heads in ADAS trials. By 1995, control varied in NIAB TAG trials from 82% to 100% between the different field sites and by 2004, from 0% and 72% control. This is typical of what happens with enhanced metabolic resistance; as it develops, overall control goes down and variability in control from site to site goes up.

In addition, as resistance increases it becomes more important to apply pesticides in favourable conditions for their activity. The now increased or total reliance on pre-/peri-emergence herbicides, all of which have their activity reduced on black-grass by enhanced metabolic resistance, has highlighted that dry seedbeds at the time of application often results in very variable and inadequate control. Added to this is the fact that necessary cultural control measures can also provide very variable levels of black-grass control.

Arable farming is all about managing risks and so the variability in control due to resistance can be as significant as the overall reduction in control. It is against this background that many farmers in both UK and Ireland are considering reducing the area of the crop that they are in global terms most competitive in producing. 

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Herbicide resistance in wild oats

Posted on 14/01/2014 by Jim Orson

Few readers of this blog will have heard of Nick Peters. Nick diligently (some might say over-diligently) researched the agro-ecology of wild oats. Most of what you understand about how wild oats tick is almost certainly based on Nick’s research. We had very effective wild oat herbicides by the time he had completed his work on the weed which may explain why not many are aware of his achievements.wild oats

Nick died very suddenly on New Year’s Eve. He was quiet and unassuming but had a terrific sense of humour. As indicated earlier, the care with which he did his experiments was legendry in weed research circles and there were sometimes unexpected and hilarious consequences to the extreme measures he took to get accurate results. If Nick said he had a good result, you knew it was an extremely well researched result. He also had a rather bizarre interest in plumbing and when attending conferences overseas, he regularly partially dismantled hotel bathrooms just to see how things worked.

It may be that Nick’s time for public recognition has yet to come. I say this because I am aware of a couple of instances where wild oats are now totally resistant to a very wide range of herbicides. It is frightening to witness the consequences in the fields in question and to try to think of a way of controlling them.

This is because wild oats have fewer weaknesses than blackgrass in terms of cultural control measures. The very common spring wild oat germinates both in the autumn and the spring. Typically around two-thirds of the plants in a winter-sown crop will emerge in the spring. So spring cropping is not really an effective cultural control method.

Likewise, its large seed means that ploughing does not have a significant effect on numbers. Perhaps its only weakness is that it stands proud of cereal crops unless spring-applied herbicides have stunted it. However, the multi-resistant plants do not seem to be even stunted by spring-applied herbicides! This visibility means that rogueing can be carried out but studies indicate that this operation is not as effective as surmised.

The only cereal herbicide that may reduce these multi-resistant populations may be tri-allate (Avadex). This needs checking. There is no recorded resistance in wild oats to isoproturon which may explain why the populations in the fields in question have recently got out of hand. I collected literally a bucketful of seed this summer. It took me ages to ensure that I did not take any seeds from the field in my socks and shoes (alright, I should have worn my wellies!). The collected seed will be tested so hopefully we will soon begin to know more about its resistance status.

The great comfort is that wild oats are typically self-pollinators and so tend to keep resistant genes ‘in the family’. This may explain why herbicide resistance in wild oats, first identified around 20 years ago in England, has not yet developed as a national problem like resistance in blackgrass.

There has also been a turn for the worse in the resistance status of another weed that fortunately does not occur in Northern Europe. Rigid ryegrass is a major weed in Australia and its resistance profile is alarming. When I visited in 2003, I was aware that in some fields the ryegrass was resistant to every selective herbicide in cereals and also to glyphosate. It was susceptible to paraquat and there was one farmer who was using precision guidance to inter-row spray his wheat crops with paraquat. The climate meant that he could sow his wheat in very wide rows with little loss of yield potential.

Unfortunately, it has recently been announced that resistance in rigid ryegrass to paraquat, as well as glyphosate, has been confirmed in a vineyard in Western Australia. Multi-applications a year, in the absence of cultivations, means that herbicide resistance often first occurs in vineyards and orchards. I suspect that this announcement has sent shudders down the backs of many Australian arable farmers.

Rigid ryegrass has one major weakness. Often more than 50% of the seed is still on the plant at cereal harvest. This has resulted in combine-mounted machines that can collect and crush the seed. In addition, the straw can be windrowed to ensure that there is sufficient to ensure a ‘hot’ burn to kill the seeds contained in it.

Keep an eye on wild oats and try to learn more about how they tick if populations are increasing. It is information generated by Nick Peters that will help enable the industry to keep a lid on the weed.  Thanks Nick.

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Twelve Days

Posted on 03/01/2014 by Jim Orson

Just before Christmas I heard a radio programme about the Druid celebration of the twelve days around the winter solstice. They celebrate the twelve days when the sun stands still.

This got me looking up data on the angle of the sun and daylight hours. Between 16th and 26th December 2013, the angle of the sun was almost static in Cambridge and the length of daylight varied only by about a minute. The same is true, of course, for the summer solstice and this coming June, the angle of the sun will not change at all in Cambridge between 16th and 26th and daylight length will vary by less than a minute. The nearly 17 hours of light per day coincides with the maximum rate of grain fill in wheat. This is not a coincidence; breeders have selected lines that are filling grain at this time.

We are still, in terms of daylight length, in the depths of winter but growth is occurring. I’ve recently heard from one farmer who drilled a large area of wheat around 11th December. This New Year morning he sent me a photo showing that it’s almost emerged. Coincidentally, the wheat variety is Solstice.

The late drilling date was an attempt to reduce blackgrass populations. Three applications of glyphosate were made, the last one immediately prior to sowing. I saw the fields just before Christmas and the blackgrass looked worryingly green but the glyphosate has now done its job.

Weather during the winter does not have a consistent effect on the efficacy of all herbicides. Some will provide little or no control and sometimes the efficacy of other herbicides is enhanced. Isoproturon applied on a cold but bright frosty morning, when the soil was frozen, was often magically effective. The most effective blackgrass control I ever saw from a particular ‘fop’ herbicide was when it was applied on a cool but very foggy day.

The activity of isoproturon in such conditions may be explained by the fact that it is a photosynthetic inhibitor and the bright conditions enhanced its activity whilst the cool conditions slowed down the breakdown of it and its metabolites in the plant. The activity of the ‘fop’ may be explained by excellent penetration into the blackgrass plant over a longer period of time because the spray did not dry on the leaf. These examples suggest that warm growing conditions are not always the pre-requisites for good herbicide activity. Glyphosate is not bad on annual weeds during the depth of winter but it can take a month or so to get good knockdown. Warm growing conditions seem more essential to control perennial weeds.

There is debate about the impact of cool and short days on the activity of the ALS inhibitor herbicides, particularly the sulfonylureas. When Lexus (flupyrsulfuron) was in its pomp, there was a dip in its control of blackgrass in mid-winter. The current debate is on the impact of cold weather and/or short days on the control of blackgrass with Atlantis (iodosulfuron and mesosulfuron). We’ve not had sufficient experience without the complicating factor of resistance to come to firm conclusions. Certainly it works more effectively in warm conditions when the weed is actively growing. It is also surprisingly effective in relatively cool conditions in early March, suggesting that rapidly increasing lengths of daylight also encourage control.

Danish researchers are convinced that the length of daylight explains why they can use super-low doses of ALS inhibitor herbicides to control broad-leaved weeds in the spring. I have looked up the tables and their daylight length exceeds ours from late March onwards and becomes significantly longer at the end of April when they apply most of their broad-leaved weed herbicides. We tend to apply our broad-leaved herbicides two or three weeks earlier because of our milder winters. The Druids burn Yule logs to brighten the shortest days of winter but I suggest the light they emit would not be enough to lift the performance of ALS herbicides on broad-leaved weeds!

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