Case study4

The Detailed Approach

James Mayes set out his stall last autumn: a higher level of grass weed control, particularly black-grass. “As on all farms with predominantly heavy chalky boulder clays like ours it is a problem and I’m very aware of the effects grass weeds have on yields; you can’t eliminate black-grass but I believe you can control it,” says the man who at the relatively young age of 32 is farms’ manager for the 1100ha Sentry Ltd (Bedfordshire) farms on the outskirts of Luton.

The business is a combination of Farm Business Tenancies, Contract Farming Agreements and a collaboration agreement with a local farmer and is on three main sites, the base at Chalton Cross Farm, Chalton, Highham Gobion and Haynes West-End. A graduate of the Sentry Trainee Management scheme, James took up the position at Chalton Cross two years ago. His responsibilities are to set farming policy, production of annual cash flows and budgets, and regularly reporting to landowners. He also does the lions share of the marketing with help from a marketing specialist within Sentry. But he is still hands-on when it comes to the grain drying, and relief spraying and drilling.

Although not from a farming background, he says that as soon ashe could walk and talk the topic was tractors and combines. There was also the influence of growing up in rural Suffolk. “I liked being outside, the tractor driving and the animals; I knew there would be nothing else but farming,” he says. In pursuit of that career he obtained his NDA from Otley College, Ipswich, then his BSc, in general agriculture but primarily crops, from Writtle, in addition to working on farms and for contractors.

He is also BASIS and FACTS qualified. He joined Sentry Ltd in 2004. “Sentry is a company that believes the farming system should be one that suits the land and the needs of the client and we are encouraged to think for ourselves and try new techniques to improve the farms’ performance,” he says. “And I’m supported by two conscientious operators; we are a professional close-knit team.”

Grass weed control

The strategy he has put into effect to control grass weeds is based on getting better prepared seedbeds, to optimise the efficacy of pre-emergence sprays on the farms 529ha of first and second wheats and 371ha of oilseed rape. “We grow Group 3 wheats as we are close to local mills and achieve soft wheat premiums; we’re also in the Weetabix Growers Club, which gives us quality premiums depending on the specification of the wheat,” he explains. There is also 100ha of spring-sown Canadian Red Wheat. This is combined as early as possible in early August to achieve the quality specification. And, crucially, it also provides an early entry for oilseed rape.

Explaining the grass weed control strategy, James says: “We’ve introduced a robust programme of stacking both preemergence and post emergence sprays to sensitise black-grass and weaken it for Atlantis. As yet there is no replacement for the product and we have to be right in its use. Also there is evidence from Agrovista as to the effectiveness of pre-emergence sprays in the autumn as opposed to postemergence.” Timelines and seedbed preparation is also critical. Achieving these has led to a change in the establishment regime which is based on getting straight in behind the combine. For the winter wheats this involves a 4.8m Simba Solo and 5.5m

Cultipress train behind a Claas Challenger 95E. The stale seedbed is then sprayed off with two applications of glyphosate if possible. If further cultivation is needed there is another pass with the Cultipress, otherwise it is drilled with a John Deere 750A behind a John Deere 7810, rolled and a pre-emergence spray applied. “It is a very reliable drill and as the seed is sown into the slot cut by the disc there is minimal soil disturbance and moisture loss,” James says. “We’re also using vigorously tillering wheat varieties at higher seed rates to provide more competition.” Preparation of the Red Wheat ground starts in the autumn, when the land is cultivated with the Solo/Cultipress combination. “It gives us a longer stale seedbed with a wide window for blackgrass germination. The crop has a very good gross margin, which makes it very competitive against second winter wheat,” James explains.

OSR establishment

This autumn also sees a change in oilseed rape establishment. James inherited a system where the rape was drilled with a pneumatic seed box mounted on the Solo/ Cultipress combination.

He thought it too slow a system that did not produce a good seedbed, with the need for high seed rates to achieve budget. Last autumn he trialled a Claydon Hybrid drill. “I’d used the drill in Suffolk so I knew it and the results were encouraging; the crop was late drilled but yields were an average 3.95t/ha against the Solo/seed box’s 3.25t/ha,” he says. This autumn, once the combine has left the field the stubble has been sprayed off, all the rape is being drilled with a hired 4.8m Claydon V-drill behind a John Deere 7810 with full autosteer.

Every other leg on the drill has been removed so the seed is being sown in 7ins bands at 24ins centres and seed rates have been reduced from an average 120 to 65 – 85 seeds/m2 depending on the seed weight. The wider row widths increase yields as they encourage the plants to branch out, which also has a smothering effect on grass weeds. The crop is then rolled and a pre-emergence spray applied. “Not only are we able to drill at the right time into a friable mini-tilth, the average output is 100 acres/day, double that of the previous system.

It also means that the Claas 95E Solo/Cultipress combination can get on with the wheat land cultivations. Before, we had to stop cultivating, do the rape drilling and then go back to cultivating,” James explains. The speed of two JCB Fastracs is used for grain carting and to pull the 3200-litre John Deere 832 i-specification sprayer. They are also used for fertiliser spreading, including variable rate application of phosphate and potash, with a Kuhn spreader fitted with a self-contained crane and electronic rate control. Combining is done with a Claas Lexion 580 Plus with a 9m Vario header, fitted with Laser Pilot guidance and Telematics. “It’s extremely useful in smoothing logistics,”

James says. “I can see when a field is soon to be finished and get things ready early for the move to the next field.” This harvest also saw the use of an 18t Gustrower chaser bin to service the combine and fill trailers on the headland. “It meant the Lexion never had to stop and wait for a trailer, we have to cart some grain 16 miles; the chaser bin increased the combine’s output by 20% on the furthest outlying land” he comments.

Attention to detail

The use of a chaser bin/lorry combination is one of the changes he is looking at for the future in addition to a greater use of variable rate application of potash and phosphate to improve the soil indicies. But his attention to detail and the changes he has made in the cultivations and establishment systems have enabled him to “drill the crops on our own terms” and had their effect. This harvest first and second wheats averaged 9.8 and 8.8t/ha, respectively, Red Wheat 3.9t/ha and oilseed rape 3.7t/ha, and critically with far higher levels of weed control. “I’m very pleased regarding the year, early on it looked as if it would be a disastrous season,” he says. “I’m very conscious that my farming methods and results are a showcase for the company.”