Harvest for many this year has been grimacing for a lot of cereal growers in the south west.

It was a very difficult autumn in 2019 and getting crops established in very wet conditions was a nightmare and lottery for many.

For one grower however, harvest 2020 has been exceptional, with the best yields ever recorded off the farm.

Andrew Knight and family at Kingsdown Farm, Branscombe have been farming here for 30 plus years, in the not too distant past yields for wheat struggled to make 3ton/ac.

The flinty clay loam soils would bake like concrete, would require huge effort to beat into a seedbed and then invariably slump over winter back into concrete by the following harvest.

Realising they needed to improve their soils, they started composting strawy dung from a neighbouring farm and spreading this on their fields.

Over the years this has improved the soil organic content massively and with the addition of green manure crops and maize in the rotation has improved the soils condition hugely.

Composting the strawy dung also reduces the risk of Blackgrass and other grass weeds becoming a problem.

Three years ago Andrew started growing wheat trial plots with seed specialist Simon Montgomery from Nickerson, part of Limagrain UK.

Richard Alcock, his agronomist had been doing the agronomy on Simon’s other trial site near Bude, so this provided a useful east/west split with the same varieties grown at both sites and similar agronomy packages.

The close proximity to the sea, the high frequency of foggy wet conditions make this a high disease pressure site, ideal for testing the resilience of wheat varieties.

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The trials were sown October 21, in the very narrow window from October 20-25, 2019, before the deluge and never ending monsoon conditions prevailed.

The plots were sown at 73kgs/ac (400 seeds per square metre), 70 meters long by 6 metres wide to give a field scale scenario.

One variety, Edgar, due to its very large bold sample, was sown at 320 and this plot struggled from the outset.

22 varieties were planted, 4 being Recommended List candidates.

Claire, the oldest variety at 20+ years, is used as a benchmark and is also sensitive to Yellow Rust in the juvenile stage, so is a useful indicator to the disease presence early in the growing season.

South West Farmer:

Two commercial wheat varieties were grown, Avatar, a slightly older variety similar to Leeds that has done very well on this farm, as well as in Devon, Cornwall and Ireland.

Spotlight, a new variety from Limagrain with high yield and exceptional grain quality was the second variety.

A fairly standard agronomy package developed by Richard Alcock was used, with an additional T1.5 fungicide application made late in May to combat the high levels of Yellow Rust seen in the untreated part of the plots.

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Liquid nitrogen fertiliser was also used in four split applications.

Wheat harvest started on August 11 and immediately it was clear that yields were exceptional and that the straw yield was good too.

The plots were cut on the following afternoon, the grain weighed using a neighbour’s borrowed Keenan diet feeder.

Avatar had noticeably the biggest swath of straw of all the varieties, a valuable component for many farmers in this region.

With an average plot yield of 5t/ac, 12.3 t/ha, this result is 1.2t/ha better than 2019 and 1.6t/ha better than 2018.

The fields of Spotlight and Avatar certainly matched what they yielded in the plots, with one field of Avatar doing better.

The results have shown what can be achieved in what has been a very difficult and testing year and also how vitally important soil health is.

The added organic content in the soils helped drain the excess water away over winter and helped store it during the dry period in late spring, vital for maintaining plant health and yield potential.