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Passionate about better productivity

05/02/2018

Article taken from The Northern Farmer, February 2018, written by Wendy Short.

 

Chris Martin grew up on a small, mixed family farm in Teesside, where his interest in arable cropping developed at a very early age. Having worked on several large arable farms in his school holidays and completed a degree in agronomy at the University of Newcastle, he spent his gap year as a spray operator in Australia.

After graduation, Chris took a job as a trainee agronomist with Schering/Profarma (now Agrovista), staying with the company for two decades through various takeovers and name changes to the present day. 

As Agrovista's technical manager for the North of Eng­land and Scotland, he provides support for the firm's agrono­mists, as well as promoting in­novation through experimental trials.

However, Chris has both feet firmly in the soil and his primary aim is to investigate options with the potential to translate into practical benefits for farmers. For this reason, he has maintained a small customer base, overseeing some 6,000 walked acres near Scotch Corner.

Among the trials series that Chris is currently running is Agrovista's GrowCrop Gold oilseed rape (OSR) develop­ment project, which has been operating for the past 12 years.

One successful farmer par­ticipant is Steve Tuer, from Hutton Grange farm near Northallerton. He followed a number of recommendations resulting from the trials work and currently holds the world record for OSR yield at 7.2t/ ha. His management technique was based on the optimisation of plant numbers, which Chris believes is key to maximising yields. Field experiments indi­cate that growers should aim for a target figure of 20 evenly spaced plants per square metre coming out of the winter.

'This approach requires the grower to hold their nerve, to some extent, because the crop will look comparative­ly sparse, compared with its traditional appearance," says Chris. "A growing OSR plant needs unrestricted rooting and the space to grow naturally in all directions. This will pro­duce an even plant population, making it easier to manage throughout the season, reduc­ing variability and simplifying decisions on desiccation and harvest date. All of our find­ings indicate this as one of the most reliable ways in which to maximise yields."

Efforts to reduce the spread of resistant blackgrass have been a main focus of the Agrovista wheat trials. The trend towards tackling the problem by moving to spring cropping to limit autumn weed germination is not likely to offer a long-term solution, he says.

"The UK blackgrass population is dynamic. Switching to spring cropping will inadvertently mean the grower will be selecting blackgrass strains which favour spring germina­tion and the beneficial effect of this measure is likely to last no more than three years."

Meanwhile, cover crops in autumn wheat sowings have proved much more effective.

"The cover crop is sown at relatively low rates, creating an ideal environment for the autumn-germinating black­grass seed. The cover crop and blackgrass is then destroyed, prior to planting the spring crop with a direct drill.

"The combination of a direct drill and the 'armour-plating' provided by the decaying cov­er crop stabilises the soil, so that grass-weed seeds are not disturbed in the spring. The past five years have shown this to be game-changing in the battle against difficult grass weed situations."

Clearly passionate about im­proving crop productivity and helping farmers to protect their businesses for the future, Chris advocates a 'back to basics' at­titude to crop management. It should begin with soil quality preservation, with drainage one of the first priorities to address.

"A prolonged period of poor crop profitability has ham­pered investment on farms. Many drainage systems have become outdated and badly in need of repair. New systems can be extremely expensive, but there are ways to improve soils cheaply.

"These can be as simple as mole-ploughing between the drain lines, or clearing out ditches, to promote the flow of water from the soil surface. The jetting of drains would be another fairly low-cost op­tion."

If UK agriculture is to re­main competitive, producers must find new ways of manag­ing their land, stresses Chris.

"Despite clear improvements in genetics, crop yields have increased very little over the past 20 years, although there is some evidence that.leading growers have started to raise yields again over the last three seasons.

'The common theme be­tween these growers is atten­tion to detail and prioritising soil health. With theoretical wheat yields averaging around 20 t/ha-plus, some are achiev­ing over 60 percent of this potential, while the figure for others is less than 35 percent.

"As an industry, we have lost many agro-chemicals and it is becoming more difficult to register new products. We are also faced with increasing en­vironmental pressure and an uncertain future with Brexit.

"But it is also a very exciting time for UK arable farming and as an industry, in order to break the yield plateau and maximise farm potential, we need to combine the best tech­niques our forefathers used, while embracing innovation and technology."

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