Times were tough for UK cereal producers around the turn of this century and costs were really under the hammer. Whilst some savings could be made with variable costs, labour and machinery costs were the main targets for savings.
There were many implications in trying to reduce labour and machinery costs per ha, including increasing the scale of production and also the widespread adoption of non-plough tillage. As I have said in previous blogs, contractor charges for a plough-based system and non-plough tillage to a depth of 20 cm do not indicate where large savings could have been made. It was the rate of work of non-plough tillage that enabled a reduced labour and machinery complement to maintain timeliness.
However agronomy played its part. Wheat varieties more suited to historical early sowing dates were identified, allowing a longer drilling window. In addition, there were effective pesticides that enabled crops to be protected from the potential problems of very early drilling. The KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) principle became established as a way to maintain crop protection with a diminished availability of managerial time and labour input per hectare. Block cropping was increasingly adopted and cereal variety choice was influenced by being able to phase their fairly predictable crop protection and nutrition requirements in order to help smooth out the labour peaks of the following spring. It now all seems so simple and straightforward.
The first real challenge to this approach came in the dry autumn of 2003. Control of blackgrass in cereals was often poor with the pre-emergence herbicides. However, the drought-induced delayed emergence resulted in blackgrass being small and not shaded by the crop in the following exceptionally warm February. These were ideal conditions for the newly introduced Atlantis. I dread to think what would have happened that year without that herbicide. In reality, I do not have to use my imagination too much. Wheat would have had infestations of blackgrass similar to the summers of 2010 and 2012 when the previous dry autumns also limited the activity of the pre-emergence herbicides but this time the potency of Atlantis was diminished due to resistance.
This reduced ability to control blackgrass has implications for block cropping. I have regularly witnessed one or two fields in a block of several fields having particular control problems. This means that one common approach to blackgrass control for all the fields in the block means either too much for some fields or two little for others. Hence, things are getting more complicated and starting to challenge the KISS approach.
Resistance is also making it more difficult to plan fungicide programmes in wheat well in advance. Increasing resistance in septoria is limiting the length of activity of the triazoles on the disease, particularly the period of eradicant activity. This reduces the flexibility in timing and may also mean an additional application between the traditional timings of the second node detectable stage of the crop and full flag leaf emergence in wet seasons.
Pesticide resistance is not the only challenge to KISS in cereal production. Pesticide revocations have also added complications. The loss of trifluralin was a particular blow. Although not the most effective blackgrass herbicide in cereals, it had the attributes of being cheap and its efficacy not being affected by pesticide resistance or by dry seedbeds. Obviously the current withdrawal of the neonicitinoid seed dressings in oilseed rape will complicate management in the future.
So whilst adopting the KISS principle helped enable cereal farmers to survive the lean times early this century, it is becoming more difficult to conduct. However, it is not yet the time to kiss KISS goodbye.