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What’s in store for Spot Farm Scotland in 2017?

29 September 2016

AHDB’s Strategic Potato (SPot) Farm programme provides growers with an insight into how the latest new systems and practice stemming from AHDB-funded research can be adopted on their farms.

Messages are delivered via a series of open days and workshops, demonstrated in commercial farm settings. The aim is to give levy payers and agronomists more confidence to deliver change that can benefit their businesses and the wider supply chain (see http://potatoes.ahdb.org.uk/agronomy/research-practice-spot-farms).

Thanks to Scottish Government funding, growers in Scotland have access to their own Spot Farm programme, hosted by Bruce Farms, Balmyle, Perthshire.

Like the other Spot Farms in Staffordshire and West Suffolk, Spot Farm Scotland is based on a three-year programme of field scale trials and demonstrations. Content will be tailored to specific areas that affect the Scottish industry.

Following a soft launch in July, during which growers were asked which areas they would like to see covered, the programme is taking shape, says Claire Hodge, AHDB knowledge exchange manager.

“We actually started a season early, putting in some cultivation trials to get an idea of how we might demonstrate the research. This also gave us the opportunity to host an open day at Bruce Farms and quiz visitors to establish what growers and the industry wanted to see from the project.”

Cultivations, nutrition and seed were selected as the most appropriate areas for further study. “About 100 people attended, of which 60% were farmers, so the feedback was very much producer-driven,” says Ms Hodge.

“We had excellent discussion and input from delegates. AHDB Potatoes then consulted with the host farm and various industry bodies on all the suggestions gathered at the open day to ensure the subjects taken forward are as representative as possible and address the main concerns of Scottish potato growers.”

Cultivations

The Spot Farm Scotland cultivation demonstration will continue to investigate the role of reducing cultivations to help lower costs while increasing productivity, says Ms Hodge.

“We are examining areas such as removing secondary cultivation, reducing working depths and improving soil structure to see what we can change without compromising the friable, free-draining and non-compacted seed-beds that potatoes need.”

This season’s work involved eight different demonstrations, comparing the farm’s standard practice of bedforming, bedtilling and destoning to 30cm (12 in) with various combinations of shallower bedtill and destoner runs, omitting the bedtill and, on one area, using the one-pass Tillerstar system.

“Potatoes were planted in beautiful conditions, so we possibly won’t pick up big differences this season,” says Ms Hodge. “But we want to continue doing everything over the next three years to ensure the findings apply to each season and different field types.”

In 2017 the impact of improving soil structure will also be assessed, she adds. The cultivation area has been split into three 1ha zones, one direct-drilled this autumn with a winter oat mix cover crop, one with radish and oats and a further area left bare over winter. Cultivation type and depth demonstrations will be overlaid on each area.

Nutrition

Jim Aitken, Senior Agronomist at Branston Ltd, will be involved in the nutrition demonstrations at Bruce Farms. Details are yet to be finalised, but

he sees merit in two areas ­– matching nitrogen inputs of a crop to customer requirements, and adjusting N levels to allow for organic manure applications.

“It is my belief that we are not very good at matching nitrogen inputs to market outlets, and that there is a need to throw more light on this,” says Mr Aitken.

“Take for example Maris Piper for the chipping trade and Maris Piper for pre-packing. While the chipping market needs a high proportion of big tubers with a high dry matter, pre-pack crops need to be harvested earlier to get the best skin finish and too many growers are delaying bulking and skin-set by using too much nitrogen.

“In Scotland we often face a further complication of Maris Piper crops being grown as a dual purpose crop – the top end going for pre-packing and bottom end for sale as classified seed. This is a horrible compromise in terms of the nitrogen optimum for both of these markets.”

Mr Aitken also believes growers are not brave enough to take full account of the potential benefit of organic fertiliser applications.

“There is a reluctance to accept, in many cases, that inorganic fertiliser applications can be substantially reduced when farmyard manure and other bulk organic fertilisers are applied,” he explains.

“It would be reassuring if we could demonstrate on the SPot farm how bold you can be when cutting back bagged fertiliser in the presence of applied organic material.”

Seed

The effects of seed storage, handling and transportation will be the main focus of the Spot Farm seed work at Bruce Farms.

Seed forms the foundation of a successful ware crop, so it is imperative that the Scottish seed industry continues to provide a source of reliable seed.

Alistair Melrose, production manager at seed and ware merchants WM Fraser, who chairs the AHDB Potatoes' Seed and Export Committee, says: “Unfortunately there are several factors that can affect that reliability.

“Spot Farm provides an opportunity for all sectors of the industry to work together and examine some of these factors, for example, storage, handling, and transportation.

“The actual demonstrations are still in the planning stage, but we want to provide seed producers and their customers with a better understanding of what works best for them and perhaps from that we can produce a protocol that can be followed.”

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