Better risk management is the only way to grow profitable oilseed rape in the face of numerous challenges, says a Northamptonshire grower.
Michael Gent and his father John say they have always grown rape – achieving yields of around 3t/ha on predominantly light land. Farming as GL Gent & Son, their mixed enterprise farm includes 500ha of combinable crops at Oundle.
Prices of some £500/t this year have seen more growers expected to return to rape – despite the twin threats of adverse weather and cabbage stem flee beetle (CSFB) that have accounted for poor yields and lost crops in recent years.
With a one-in-four rotation for rape – and many years of experience – mean the Gents view professional risk management as the only way to succeed with a crop that seems to have more than its fair share of luck attached to the end result.
“Like many growers we’d historically subsoiled rape, not fully understanding the increased risk that soil disturbance can make to the threat of flea beetle,” says Michael, who has direct drilled rape using a 3m Weaving GD Drill since 2019.”
Despite its many agronomic benefits, direct drilling still involves the expense of an additional pass. It also requires a decent weather window – with the right soil moisture – amid the risk that drilling could be delayed.
“Supported by advice from our agronomist, we’ve always believed in the benefits of establishing rape crops earlier on the theory that a strong, earlier germinated crop can grow away from flea beetle present in the early autumn,” says Michael.
“An earlier crop is also better able to deal with harsher winter weather conditions than younger, late drilled crops. Based on that theory it was only a matter of time before we began looking at a new system of autocasting the rape as we combined.”
Earlier rape establishment via autocasting, or via any other alternative application method, can never be described as a complete agronomic fix – and there will always be other potential challenges for rape crops through the season.
But autocasting is an effective option for cutting rape establishment costs and better protecting soil by reducing crop passes. It also improves sustainability and creates a micro-climate beneath the chopped straw where young rape plants can flourish.
“Autocasting also helps to conserve soil moisture – critical to successful rape establishment,” says Michael.
To achieve this, the business invested in an Autocast V2 applicator – a broadcasting system from Techneat Engineering that can be used for both oilseed rape and cover crops. It was mounted on the header of the Claas Vario 660 combine harvester.
“The key strengths of the Autocast V2 are that it’s simple to operate, quick to set up and easy to calibrate. The rapeseed is metered into an air-stream that is then distributed to outlets spaced equally along the full width of the combine header.
“A dual hopper system enables us to place rapeseed with a companion crop and slug pellets beneath the chopped straw as we combine, establishing both the new rape crop and the cover crop as early as possible.
Mr Gent estimates that using the Autocast V2 for the first time this year has enabled the farm to conservatively save £50-£60/ha on rape establishment costs.
“Given the considerable upfront investment in seed and inputs on oilseed rape, any reduction in the overall production cost of the crop has to be a bonus given the current financial risks linked to growing rape.”
Risk mitigation is especially important for the business, given that most of its lighter land has a yield potential of about 3t/ha.
Low-cost establishment and use of farm-saved seed where possible have both had a positive impact on net margins, adds Mr Gent.
“When we’re able to combine both good financial returns on winter cover crops with low-input spring cereals, it helps to create a healthy overall profit margin for both our business and for our contract farming customers.”
But the benefits of cover crops aren’t just purely financial. They are also important as the farm strives to improve its soil health linked to an anticipated move next January into a higher tier Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme.
“Our long-term intention is to trial a number of different cover crops within the rotation including phacelia, vetch, black oats, mustard, berseem clover and buckwheat to evaluate what works best for both our soil and crop yields over the next five years.”