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Growers are optimising crop performance thanks to trials which assessed the nitrogen use efficiency of new new cereal varieties. Trials help farmers grow more from less

• Cereal varieties tested for efficiency

• Different nitrogen strategies assessed

• Results reveal best fertiliser strategy

Growers are optimising crop performance thanks to trials which assessed the nitrogen use efficiency of new new cereal varieties.

Plant breeder Elsoms began work in 2020 on a series of new trials aimed at screening all their candidate varieties and near market lines for nitrogen efficiency as part of its “grow more for less” strategy. The results are now bearing fruit.

The aim was discover how different varieties respond to different nitrogen application rates and timings, says technical manager George Goodwin. The goal was to reduce nitrogen inputs as much as possible without seeing drastic differences in either yield or quality.

“This not only tells us which of our varieties are the most nitrogen efficient but – just as importantly – why they are more efficient, enabling us to isolate those positive genetic traits for use in future cross-breeding,” says Mr Goodwin.

The trials benefit growers because Elsoms can offer specific husbandry advice when a new variety becomes commercialised – helping to reduce expenditure on nitrogen by reducing the number of fertiliser applications.

“This obviously gives us an advantage when marketing our portfolio,” says Mr Goodwin.

Environmental concerns about over-applying nitrogen were behind the first trials, he adds. But the war in Ukraine and resulting spike in nitrogen costs have since created a compelling economic case for the research too.

Game changer

Andrew Creasy, UK cereal product manager for Elsoms partner Saaten Union says the trials are a potential game changer for growers looking to improve their farm’s sustainability, enhance crop performance and potentially reduce their overall input costs.

“Over the last three years, we’ve annually assessed 10 different winter wheat varieties – including three controls – across four different nitrogen regimes. Applications ranged from no nitrogen at all to 200kg applied in three splits.

“Trials were replicated twice each year, on heavy soils at our Cowlinge trial site, and then on lighter soils at our site near Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk to give us the widest performance comparison across different soil types,” says Mr Creasy.

“While important to highlight that this research is ongoing, several important discoveries have already come to light.” One variety yielded better when 150kg of nitrogen was applied in two splits early in the season than it did when 200kg was applied in three applications.

“Given the recent predominance of dry spring and summer weather, it is clear that much of the late applied nitrogen is not getting into the plants due to a lack of soil moisture.

Weather conditions

“But there’s also enough evidence in the data to suggest that varieties with German and French parentage perform much better when nitrogen is front-loaded – regardless of weather conditions – given that not every year was consistently dry between 2020 and 2022.

The 2021 trials also provided an insight into optimising yields from Group 2 milling wheat Mayflower. When 85kg of N was applied early, Mayflower out-yielded a competitor variety – even though there was no difference when both varieties received 150kg in two early splits.

“Taking varieties out of their comfort zone to find their optimum level of N for yield and quality is a significant step forward when looking to develop new varieties that are able to express the same use efficiency characteristics,” says Mr Creasy.

“Our objective now is to pass this key husbandry advice on to agronomists and growers to support them in their variety decision making process.”