‘Working with the environment rather than a solution from a can’ theme at agronomy event in Suffolk

Thursday, 28 February 2019

With increasing desire for agriculture to farm more sustainably, attendees at the AHDB Agronomy 2019 event in East Anglia were urged to work more closely with nature to achieve this ambition.

The theme of ‘working with the environment rather than a solution from a can’ was included in a summary of the day by Duxford Monitor Farmers Tom Mead and David Hurst, who provided the closing speech following a series of insightful presentations to growers, agronomists and industry stakeholders at the Ravenwood Hall hotel in Suffolk on Thursday 7 February.

Working more closely with nature formed the rationale behind pioneering research by Professor Edward Cocking of the University of Nottingham, whose work into nitrogen-fixing bacteria aims to provide a sustainable alternative to nitrogen fertilisers; a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Professor Cocking’s research seeks to revolutionise agriculture by harnessing natural processes to furnish crops with nitrogen internally; reducing growers’ dependence on fertilisers. The project centres on inoculating crops with the bacteria Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus (Gd), isolated from sugarcane crops, which converts nitrogen gas into ammonium: the process known as nitrogen fixation.

The project aims to replicate a phenomenon occurring naturally in crops such as legumes and apply it to wheat. If successful, Gd produces ammonium internally: providing a sustainable alternative to fertiliser use. Professor Cocking highlighted the project’s potential to reduce costs for growers and provide yield enhancement in regions of the world without access to manufactured fertilisers.

The science of yield formed the basis of a talk by Roger Sylvester-Bradley: Head of Crop Performance for agricultural research company ADAS. Roger provided an update on ADAS’s Yield Enhancement Network (YEN), in which growers measure crop progress and test new techniques to enhance yield. The project aims to highlight combinations of factors affecting crop yields throughout the UK.

Reflecting on YEN yields between 2013 and 2018, Roger said they showed much variation was accounted for by factors peculiar to the specific farm itself more than to season. Most important for growers is attention to detail, such as: frequent nutrition, disease control and maintaining continuity of crop management through the season. Roger explained that large yields generally came from large crops, with high ear populations and high final biomass.

Later in the day audiences heard from Stuart Knight of plant science research organisation NIAB, who presented data from AHDB-funded trials looking at fungicide performance. Septoria tritici in wheat continues to be of greatest concern, with indications of a further decline in azole efficacy in 2018 and evidence of a shift in SDHI performance against the disease over the last two seasons.

Ben Woodcock of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology gave an overview of the Assist programme: aiming to develop sustainable and resilient agricultural systems, while reducing their environmental impact. He was followed by AHDB specialists Sajjad Awan and Charlotte Rowley who gave brief round-ups of crop nutrition and protection research currently being undertaken for levy payers.

Reflecting on the day AHDB Arable Knowledge Exchange Manager for East Anglia Teresa Meadows said:

“The conclusion from this agronomy event was one of the industry moving towards the era of biological farming, whilst keeping a focus on yield and costs.

Whilst sharing the latest ADHB research in agronomy, this event highlighted the opportunities going forwards to make the most of the latest developments in technology and research. It was a privilege to hear from a lifetime of research by Professor Cocking on the nitrogen fixing opportunities in non-leguminous crops, which will hopefully provide a way for growers to reduce their fertiliser use in the future.

Attention to detail in the future, whether that be in designing fungicide programmes, monitoring soil conditions and root growth through the season or taking a whole-farm approach to biodiversity, is likely to be essential for future agronomic success.”
The presentation slides from this event can be viewed at: ahdb.org.uk/knowledge-library/agronomy-2019-east-anglia.