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Back from the Brink – Dynamic Crop Management

Date Added: 04/09/2008

Poor crop establishment usually spells bad news and lost profit for arable farmers, but for the new tenant of Chapel Farm near Salisbury, the challenge of helping his crop of oilseed rape to recover from a poor winter was tackled head on with a successful outcome.

Colin Keevil, who runs a limestone quarry, caravan refurbishing business and engineering enterprise, currently farms 900 acres of brashy clay soils in North Somerset where his family has been farming for two generations.

Mr Keevil’s aim is to expand his farm beyond 1500 acres in order to counter the effects of increasing inputs costs and to ensure that his farm business remains profitable and efficient.  With this in mind he recently signed a five year tenancy agreement for 346 acres at Chapel Farm in East Knoyle.  He was hoping to gain access to the farm during August 2007 so that he could get on with planting his cereal and oilseed rape crops.  But a hold-up in proceedings meant that occupancy was delayed until mid-September.

As a result, many of the field based jobs were delayed.  In fact, a block of 31 hectares of Flash oilseed rape wasn’t drilled until 14th September, some three weeks later than Mr Keevil would ideally have liked.

To add to the challenge, Mr Keevil was also working with chalky soils for the first time.  “The ground at Chapel Farm is extremely hungry compared to the clay soils on my other land,” he explains, “and needs plenty of muck and fertiliser to keep it in good condition.  The soils at Chapel Farm are also very cold during the winter as the light chalk doesn’t absorb as much heat as darker soils.

“This gives the impression that the crops simply aren’t growing.  At first I thought the crop was going to fail which would have been disastrous.  To make matters worse, we also lost a lot of moisture out of the soil as I had chosen to cultivate the ground twice.  The intention was to create the best possible seed bed, but in hindsight I should have just worked the ground once to retain as much moisture as possible.”

On a more positive note, the ground at Chapel Farm is extremely clean with very few weeds for the rapeseed to compete against.  It also helps that Mr Keevil chose to grow Flash, a hybrid oilseed which is more vigorous than a lot of conventional varieties and is less palatable to pigeons, which have caused untold damage across the UK this year.

In order to bring the crop back from the brink of failure, Mr Keevil, in conjunction with his agronomist Richard Alcock, had to adapt the way he managed the crop during the remainder of the growing season.  Fertiliser was applied at a rate specified by the crop’s Green Area Index.  By measuring the amount of green foliage, it was possible to determine when to apply fertiliser, and in what quantity. 

Four separate fertiliser applications were made between October and April instead of the normal two treatments.  “We had to use a lot more diesel to apply the two extra dressings, but this ensured that the fertiliser, which is extremely expensive to buy, was applied at the optimum growth stage with minimal leaching,” explains Mr Keevil. 

“As soon as the nutrients were applied, the crop of Flash started to go ballistic and has grown beyond all expectations.  This is largely because we chose a vigorous hybrid variety, but also because we took great care in managing the crop once it was in the ground.  I am so impressed that I am almost tempted to reduce the sowing rate next year because the crop has thickened out so much and looks set to give an excellent gross output,” he adds.

And Mr Keevil remains positive about the future for arable farming.  “The next eight to ten years should be fine for those farmers who have got their businesses in order and don’t over spend or over commit themselves,” he claims.  “The biggest difficulty is going to be high input costs, but at least there is finally worldwide recognition that we need to produce more food globally.”

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