The practical outcomes of AHDB Potatoes Strategic Potato Farm was the subject of a meeting in Rugeley (3 December 2015) where over forty potato growers, farm staff, seed breeders, advisors and agronomists met.
Seed rates, nutrient planning, cultivations, water management, in-field greening and precision farming were among the hot topics on the agenda.
AHDB Potatoes technical executive Hannah Goodwin, who organised the event, said, “AHDB Potatoes spends £1.5m annually on R&D topics chosen by the industry as being important to the sector. On-farm implementation of this R&D is absolutely vital to drive our £4.1bn industry forward and that’s why we’re here today.
“Our Strategic Potato Farm helps do just that and has only been possible with the immense support from innovative Staffordshire–based host farmers James and Sam Daw and their motivated team.”
Delving into the results kicked off with a passionate discussion on seed rates with a strong focus on the end-market specification.
“Industry has moved on from using all the seed in the shed to a focus on achieving target spacing to meet exact contract specification,” said Hannah. “Receiving the seed count and knowing the chronological age from the seed supplier is integral to achieving optimum stem number and final yield. But not all varieties behave in the same way in relation to stem production and seed age.”
Whole team approach
A resounding message from the floor was that achieving maximum marketable yield is only possible with a whole team approach. It was emphasised that no operations should be examined in isolation. Each unique field operation has a cumulative effect on the final specification and the field team need to share the vision and buy into the plans.
“Today’s discussions have far more gravitas with the specific knowledge in the room shared between seed specialists, tractor drivers, planter and harvester operatives, farmers and researchers,” said Hannah.
“One view today is that at pressured times of the season, such as planting, there is not enough checking back to see if our targets such as seed spacing has actually been achieved. A busy role such as the planter driver not only needs to calibrate and operate his machine he also has to concentrate on his nematicide application and communicate with the destoner/bedformer team operatives. These roles are crucial and need support from other members of the team on the ground.”
The unanimous view from delegates was that, over the years, soils have been increasingly overworked as more on-farm horse power has become available, but to the detriment of its structure. Many lessons were learnt from the extreme wet season of 2012 when many overworked soils slumped because the soil architecture didn’t maintain enough clot.
“Results from the SPot farm this year clearly showed that seedbeds could be cultivated much shallower than industry is used to without detrimental effect on yield or quality,” said Hannah. “The results gave a significant benefit to savings in work rate, fuel, labour but could also alleviate equipment depreciation and allow the opportunity to cultivate soils in shorter weather windows.
“In seasons where soil is dry at depth, cultivation can be deeper than normal without damaging soil, but this does not benefit productivity or profitability. Reported ease of harvesting and tuber damage levels were unaffected by seedbed depth, which should give growers the confidence to experiment more with shallower depths with controlled strips until your own optimum is found.”
There has been tremendous interest in this area of work at the SPot farm with the cultivation areas always being an area for heated discussion and exchange of ideas. And delegates who had been to see the plots in the field were extremely interested hear the harvest results.
Philip Burgess, Head of Knowledge Transfer AHDB Potatoes summed up by saying that “Being able to see the plots in the field and then the positive results summarised here today gives growers confidence to review and change their current practices”.
An AHDB Fellowship study looking at greening in relation to planting depth, location and growth patterns of tubers and stolons within the ridge, along with varietal variances was discussed at length. “With some industry figures suggesting 10% of packhouse losses are attributable to greening there was huge enthusiasm to the value of this work,” concluded Hannah.
During the first growing season over 400 farmers visited the demonstration site via Hannah’s blog (strategicpotatofarm.blogspot.co.uk) which documents all the field operations and received nearly 4,000 visits. AHDB is extending the SPot farm activity to further locations for 2016, diary dates will be announced via potatoes.ahdb.org.uk/events