Better agronomy will improve winter wheat and OSR yields
Addressing shortcomings in current agronomic practice is one of the first steps needed to tackle the nation's "yield plateau" in winter wheat and oilseed rape.
That was the principal finding in a Home Grown Cereals Authority study, the Yield Plateau Report.
It was commissioned by the Home Grown Cereals Authority (HGCA) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last year to look at the factors limiting increased yields and to address gaps in current industry research, and has just been published.
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The study, led by the National Institute of Agricultural Botany and The Arable Group, in conjunction with Cambridge University, is the first to take an independent and comprehensive overview of the issues – and involved the analysis of data going back to the 1940s.
The report looked at climate and weather patterns, plant breeding, economic influences, farm-management practice and the impact of commodity prices on yields.
Since the 1990s, winter wheat yields have stalled, while oilseed rape yields have fluctuated wildly over the past 30 years, said Stuart Knight, NIAB/TAG's director of crops and agronomy, and author of the report. This was despite genetic yield gain continuing to deliver potential progress at more than 0.5% per year for winter wheat and 2% for oilseed rape.
Dr Susannah Bolton, of the HGCA, said the report gave more clarity to a complex subject and provided an important reference point for the industry to start moving forward.
She said: "This report clearly shows there is no simple solution to the problem of stagnating yields.
"The study suggests getting the most from yield potential will require changes to agronomic practice and improved variety selection in the short term, while issues such as a better understanding of soil health and improved collection of on-farm yield data need to be addressed in the future.
"The Home Grown Cereals Authority is already addressing some of the points raised, particularly around providing more regional data in the Recommended Lists and investing in soils research.
"Next year we will be preparing to consult on our research strategy for 2014 onwards – and this report will play an important part in helping inform our priorities for levy-payer investment."
Data from Defra's Farm Business Survey has shown the yield gap between the top and bottom quartiles of growers has increased from three tonnes per hectare in the late 1980s to four-and-a-half tonnes in 2009.
Growers in the top quarter have also performed better financially. The report suggests this is consistent with more effective farm management, which has improved knowledge transfer at its heart.
The Yield Plateau Report makes a series of specific recommendations for the industry. These include short-term opportunities to help growers get the most from current operations, medium-term changes in industry approach and longer-term aims to prepare for the future.
To date, the HGCA has commissioned 30 research projects under its three-year Investing in Innovation research strategy for 2011 to 2014.
This includes £1.6 million of levy-payer investment in three soils projects, and a further £300,000 in weeds research this year.
Total research investment to date is £8.1 million, including £4.4 million of HGCA levy funding.