Potato levy payers visit SPot farm to gain crop insight

W B Daw & Son, hosts of the first AHDB Strategic Potato (SPot) Farm, welcomed 100 industry peers to a new site in Thorpe Constantine, Staffordshire to discuss best practice in the face of new challenges for the second season.

James Daw
James Daw

The SPot Farm offers growers an insight into how new systems and practice can be implemented on their own potato enterprise, aiming to give levy-payers and their agronomists confidence to make changes for the benefit of their businesses and the wider supply chain.

AHDB Potatoes Knowledge Exchange Manager and coordinator of the SPot Farm West project Anne Stone said: "Last year, James Daw and his son Sam, were instrumental in getting the SPot Farm programme off the ground with 89 per cent of over 300 supply-chain visitors rating the SPot Farm as relevant to their business in its first year.

"To maintain that relevancy, James and Sam continue to innovate, sharing their findings to ensure a sustainable and prosperous future for the GB potato industry as a whole," 

Bill Smith, who grows more than 150 hectares of potatoes, predominately for McCain Foods, travelled to the Staffordshire SPot Farm from Leominster, in Herefordshire for the event on 19 July.

He said: "Potato crops require a considerable investment and skill to produce. This is the first AHDB event I have attended for a long time and I’m pleased that the levy is being invested into the SPot Farm demonstrations, giving growers opportunity to explore the potential of new science alongside experts, researchers and the host farmer."

New for this year, growers were invited to review maceration and incorporation of bio-fumigant crops for PCN control, and examine plots where over-winter cover crops had been introduced to determine their added agronomic benefits.

NIAB CUF senior researcher Marc Allison said: "It’s important to understand if we need to adjust nutrient calculations to account for cover crops since findings of earlier grower collaboration projects showed how rather than hitting a plateau, there isactually a downward curve effect on yield the more nitrogen you apply after a certain point.

"In practical terms, this means that the doses of nitrogen some growers commonly apply as added insurance not only cost money but may also potentially cost us yield.

"Due to seasonal conditions, poor growth of the cover crop itself resulted in limited need to reduce nitrogen inputs this season, but we were surprised by a side observation where the trial plots revealed potential for cover crops to aid soil cultivability.

"Where the cover crop had been left in place and alive right up to the point of cultivating, the soil showed a one per cent moisture difference at each 5cm in depth – with huge implications for ease of workability."

James Daw said: "The observations were just jaw-dropping. We found every cultivation operation roughly 25 per cent faster where we had destroyed the cover crop on the day rather than desiccated a month earlier."

Modern production techniques, cost of labour and mechanical handling don’t often lend themselves to chitting, say AHDB.

However, in new trials this year, supported by McCain agronomist Matt Smallwood, chitted seed stocks were able to take advantage of the two good weeks at the start of the season before conditions became less suitable, advancing the plants’ canopy development and bulking.

He said: "There’s still the rest of the season to come, and we will be following results through to harvest, yield and even storage effects, but it’s hard to see such an advantage not following through."

Daw added: "For us, it’s been a tricky few years in terms of conditions leading up to storage making it crucial to mature the maincrop quicker, bringing that harvest date earlier and allowing proper time for skin set before loading into store."

Developing on findings from last year, in-field talks focused on cultivations, seed rates, and efforts to prevent tuber greening.

Smith said: "A demonstration that particularly interested me was Simons Smart’s (NIAB CUF) study of tuber formation, and specifically the effects of differences in stolon architecture on tuber greening, size distribution and diseases such as common scab.

"If as growers we can reduce greening and the levels we supply to our customers this will help with our contract bonus payments and improve our total marketable yield."

Final demonstrations to challenge growers’ current practices surrounded selection and optimisation of equipment and facilities.

Matt Rodenhurst, lecturer and researcher at Harper Adams University, advised on effective incorporation of nematicides: "It’s about using the right products, in the right place, at the right time, also using the right equipment. We want to ensure we get the nematicide around the roots of the crop rather than in the wheelings where it’s lost and not protecting the roots.

"It’s critical to maximise the concentration into the soil that will surround the rooting zone, usually 15-20cm into the destoned bed. Over-incorporation deep into the soil profile is comparable in reduced effectiveness to under-incorporation and lack of mixing after application."

Back at the event base, delegates learned about improvements in drip-irrigation systems used by James Daw, well suited to their water-scarce supply before being given an insider view of the reconditioned 2300 tonne potato store.

Sutton Bridge Crop Storage Research head Adrian Cunnington said: "It’s the innovation, investment and attention to detail put into this that I believe has enabled W B Daw and Son to convert this redundant cattle shed into a high-performing potato store which proved able to deliver Russet Burbank into the premium processing market well into July this year."

Opportunities to follow the SPot Farm programme results through key seasonal activities continue with farm walks planned for 19 August and 8 September. Levy-payers can register to attend for free at potatoes.ahdb.org.uk/events

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