Students competing in the 2019 Cereals Challenge have had to think on their feet and use integrated crop management to overcome agronomy challenges and the odd “curved ball” in efforts to take top honours when the winner is announced at the Cereals Event on 12 June.
Five teams are taking part in the 10th year of the competition, organised by crop production specialists Hutchinsons and farm business management company Velcourt, to see who can manage the best “virtual” crop of spring barley, using many of the resources available to agronomists.
The competition kicked-off in February, when teams had to plan their approach to seedbed preparation, variety selection, drill choice, drilling date, seed rate, and early weed control, focussing on black-grass.
Subsequent monthly tasks have required teams to explain and justify their approach to other areas of agronomy, including disease control and growth regulation, as if they were managing a real barley crop.
This year’s competition includes a strong environmental focus, with an extra award for the team demonstrating the strongest awareness of environmental protection and integrated pest management (IPM) principles.
These IPM principles were brought to the fore when teams were asked how they would deal with the appearance of “new invaders” in the form of unusually early emergence of wild oats and signs of aphid activity during March.
Some teams were prompted to adapt their strategies. Newcastle University for example, led by Louise Penn, was one of those that opted for a post-emergence herbicide with activity on wild oats and black-grass to tackle both threats in their crop of February-sown RGT Planet.
“Only 5 wild oats/m2 cause a yield loss of 5% and furthermore it would impact on future crops if allowed to set seed. The damage potential was too great to ignore,” she said.
Although the team preferred not to apply an insecticide, they felt the yield threat from BYDV meant a foliar pyrethroid treatment would be justified if aphid numbers exceeded the treatment threshold.
Both Writtle College, growing Sienna, and Harper Adams (Laureate) meanwhile opted for late drilling on 1 April, so were able to control wild oats before drilling, or with planned herbicide programmes.
Harper Adams captain Dan Hawes said they changed their pre-emergence approach slightly, with a switch from granular Avadex to liquid formulations, which removed an additional pass over the field requiring specialist equipment.
They too judged the risk from aphids would justify treatment if a second generation was detected, while RAU and Riseholme opted not to treat for aphids.
“We didn’t treat for aphids because we hope beneficial insects will control them effectively, so there shouldn’t be any need to spray an insecticide,” Riseholme captain Jennifer Chennells said. “We believe it is best to only use insecticides if absolutely necessary due to the effect it has on insects and the environment.”
Limited rain since the crop was sown also prompted Harper Adams to try tramline trials of biostimulant products in a bid to improve rooting and crop health during periods of stress.
Despite the dry spring potentially reducing disease pressure, most teams maintained a robust fungicide programme as an “insurance policy” to protect yield and quality, especially where high seed rates and established plant populations were used for black-grass control.
Just one team took the opportunity to make savings by switching to more cost-effective products, but all opted to use a range of chemistry and modes of action.
“A strong fungicide program can boost yields by up to 2.5t/ha, which with current prices is an increase in income of £320/ha,” Miss Penn noted. This more than offset any additional cost.
With IPM in mind, Riseholme College’s team, growing a crop of mid-March sown RGT Planet, implemented 6m buffer strips around three sides of the field after Omnia yield map analysis revealed it was more financially beneficial than cropping poor-yielding land.
Defending champions RAU, captained by Lucy Hando, took a similar decision earlier in the season, putting a low-yielding part of the field close to a watercourse into a grass buffer strip, based on Omnia analysis of field performance and seedbed conditions.
They, and other teams, also used Omnia to create variable seed rate plans, which Miss Hando said helped improve cultural weed control across the field. A high seed rate (436–526 seeds/m²) and dense crop (300–350 established plants/m²) helped smother black-grass and wild oats. This was supported by good control from an application of glyphosate before drilling and a robust pre-emergence herbicide, she said.
It is the 10th anniversary of the Cereals Challenge, which aims to encourage a new generation of farmers and agronomists into the industry.
Taking part this year are students from Writtle University College, Newcastle University, Royal Agricultural University, Riseholme College, and Harper Adams University.
The winning team will be announced on the Hutchinsons stand at the Cereals Event on 12 June. There will be a trophy and total prize money of £1,000 for the winners, plus £500 for the College or University they represent.
An additional prize of £400 will go to the winning team of the environmental part of the competition, plus £100 for their College or University. This is being judged by Phil Jarvis, farm manager at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) Allerton project.