Pressure Prompts Potato Performance Review in Shropshire

Press Release

Date: 8th March 2017

Publisher: Midland Farmer

Potato margins are under pressure – prompting grower Matthew Wallace to review crop performance at Heal Farms, Shawbury, in north Shropshire.

Having recently relocated from Fridlington Farms in Yorkshire, Matthew Wallace brings a fresh pair of eyes to the family run business encompassing arable and potato crops, and a separate large-scale poultry business.

“This year’s cropping includes 339ha of winter oilseed rape, 460ha winter wheat grown for milling, 100ha of spring barley, 30ha of winter barley, 120ha of carrots – let out to a grower – and 540ha of potatoes,” explains Mr Wallace, of Heal Farms, Shawbury, Shropshire.

The operation covers soils from light loams to heavy clay and is reliant on bore-hole irrigation to keep crops drought-free. Around 18,000t of potatoes have been grown annually for crisp and chip manufacturers utilising on-farm insulated and inverter stores from November through to June.

“Our potato year will start on 10 March with the planting of Lady Rosetta followed by Arsenal, Lady Claire, Hermes, and Brooke for the crisp market via marketing agent Mercian,” says Mr Wallace, who hosts varietal trials for the Agricultural & Horticultural Development Board (AHDB).

Grown for processing

“Premiere, Amora and Shepody are grown for processing into chips for McCain Foods. The challenge is matching varieties to soil type, field disease history and growth characteristics.”

Topping a list of priorities is the need to keep on top of Potato Cyst Nematode (PCN) populations, free living nematode and soil bourne rhzoctonia which impact on yield and/or tuber quality. “For 2017, we are an AHDB trials site assessing variety selection and in-field treatments to tackle PCN – a pest more prevalent here in Shropshire than Yorkshire.”

Extending crop rotation so potatoes occur once every six years is universally desired but can be hard to achieve, he’s learnt. “You have to be realistic over what varieties can be used for your end market and what the (host) farm’s individual fields will support.”

To strike that balance nutrient mapping of the entire arable platform has been done. Yorkshire-based Precision Decisions provide computer-based mapping to be used in conjunction with in-field machinery guidance and variable rate fertiliser application technology.

The business has recently invested in a RTK N-trip geo-mapping base station (shared with a neighbour) allowing it to fix boundaries, reduce excess inputs and tailor in-field cultivations to achieve nearer 100% cropping.

Overall profitability

“The other key area I have to address is overall profitability of the cropped area. A review of nutrient use and timeliness is underway (the business makes use of Yara’s N-sensor technology to assess plant requirements). For example, in potatoes each day we maintain over 80% canopy cover we should see a yield lift of up to 0.33t/ha/day – a significant factor for profitability.”

Likewise, irrigation practises are under review (some trickle tape is available but not used) with a reliance on reel guns fed from borehole water. Easier to set up in-field, Mr Wallace is mindful of the associated evaporation losses and over-watering on shoulders which remain a concern.

New cropping strategies are being considered. Use of green manure crops to ‘open up’ soil structure ahead of potatoes and use of ‘trap’ crops post harvest to reduce PCN populations both feature. “There is no single answer to improve margins – it has to be across the whole operation. Agriculture must be sustainable without subsidy,” he says.

Cereals do not escape scrutiny. The business produces milling wheat but if the premium over feed wheat is low grain is bunkered (there’s 9500t storage available) and used in-house for the Heal’s free range egg business.

Consistent performer

“Crusoe has been a very consistent performer and Skyfall acts as a good second wheat, although not as reliable as Gallant – often our highest yielding wheat,” he reflects. “Oilseed rape varieties need to have disease resistance. I prefer hybrid DK varieties for their reliability, vigour and anti pod shatter resistance.”

With March seeing machinery move into action, a complete review has already seen key changes. “I want flexibility to use tractors across the production year which is why a tracked Challenger is being replaced with 390hp Fendt 939 wheeled tractor.

“The tracked machine is doing 600hrs/year whereas a wheeled tractor is doing 2000hrs. Savings in wear parts and fuel use will also figure.”

Likewise, a 36m-boomed Challenger Rogator 6000-litre self propelled sprayer has just been purchased replacing two smaller units (cutting capital outlay significantly).

“The decision follows a close look at our machinery fixed costs. It will be run with a second operator mixing sprays and chasing with a high capacity bowser. Refilling times will be cut considerably; it should manage 200ha/day across potato crops.”

A team of seven full-time drivers run the arable operation which is spread over a 25-mile radius. Staffing swells to nearer 30 when potato harvesting is in full swing.

“That puts considerable pressure on managing traffic at the main potato storage, washing and grading site. This is being relocated to another holding in the future offering greater scope for expansion and, importantly, better access for HGV transport.”