Farm Of The Week: The Naked truth about oat rotation

Charlie Booth
Charlie Booth
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Given the summer we have endured the idea of arable farmers being able to improve their margins while reducing risk is one which will appeal to many but realistically may appear to be a pipe dream.

However, two farming brothers in West Yorkshire have found some solace from the rain with the novel crop of the naked oat.

Naked oats have proved an excellent way of extending the wheat and oilseed rape rotation for Charlie and Alaric Booth.

The pair operate at Smeathalls Farm, near Knottingley in West Yorkshire, and are now into their third season of growing the specialist high value oat crop.

Indeed, the brothers and their Agrii agronomist, Sam Patchett, have developed a naked oat regime which generates margins comfortably above OSR and not far short of first wheat across their 800-acre holding.

The change has been made possible by a combination of attractive fixed premium over feed wheat contracts, valuable returns from straw and particularly low growing costs. “Like many people, our arable rotation had become more and more concentrated around wheat and rape over the years,” said Charlie.

“Wheat/wheat/rape served us well for some time. But a build-up of OSR volunteer and disease problems as well as indifferent second wheat performance was putting us in a cleft stick of increasing costs and declining yields. So we simply had to extend our rotation.”

In 2009 the Booths took the decision to move to only growing oilseed rape once every five years. Peas were an obvious choice as a wheat entry. Not least for the extra winter-long opportunity they give to control the major resistant ryegrass problem that is a legacy of much of the farm’s grassland past.

The real dilemma, though, was what else to grow. They needed another cereal but indifferent yields and high growing costs meant second wheats invariably struggled to generate decent margins. They’d grown winter barley in the past. However, the difficulty of controlling grassweeds as well as the experience of previous price collapses made them reluctant to go back to it.

Spring barley was a contender for a while. Until their then Masstock agronomist, Chris Dale suggested trying naked oats from GB Seeds for their attractive combination of grain and straw-earning opportunities.

Researching the crop, they came to appreciate later than winter barley sowing and greater crop competitiveness would suit their autumn grass weed control challenge well.

So they introduced the crop in a progressive extension of their main rotation to a five-year cycle of wheat, oats, peas, wheat and rape.

“The naked oats have proved just what we need so far,” Charlie said.

“Drilling in mid-late September gives us the opportunity to prepare a good stale seedbed so we can burn off a big flush of ryegrass with Roundup before sowing. The tall variety we’re growing, Grafton, not to be confused with the wheat of the same name, has also proved very competitive, giving us excellent weed smothering.

“There’s a big local demand for the straw for horse feeding, in particular, up here. As a result, it generates very much better returns than barley straw at £80-£90/tonne, adding the equivalent of an extra half a tonne to the acre to our earnings.”

“Last year our 130-acre (52 ha) crop averaged 3.12 t/acre (7.7 t/ha),” adds Alaric. “And we recorded peaks of up to 4 t/acre (9.9 t/ha) in places. With the flat rate premium over feed wheat of our Superioat contract plus the straw, we earned not far short of £700/acre (£1730/ha) all told for an input cost two thirds the level of a typical second wheat to give us a gross margin of over £500/acre (£1230/ha).

“They’re certainly not for everyone and we’re still learning how best to grow them. But the margins we’ve been able to generate and the fact that they’re proving to be a true wheat break – and a better one than OSR, at that – leaves us confident that, armed with the best agronomic advice, we’re on the right track with naked oats.

“Having tried 70 acres of spring oats this year to give us extra time for grass weed control and lost the lot to flooding, we can also safely say they’re far more reliable than going down this route.” Flooding is something arable farmers across the whole Yorkshire region have had to contend with all year, following the wettest May and July on record.

And while the brothers, who previously farmed at Swilington and have been in operation for 32 years, have found some solace with the oat regime, they are under no illusions as to what effect the abysmal weather will have on their bottom line.

“This year has been an anomaly with the weather,” said Charlie.

“Yields are down, everything is down. We have never known a year like this.”

He said that he had hoped to be finishing the oats this week.

The pair do contract farming elsewhere and are operating at a time of strong prices for wheat, brought on largely by the fact that growing has been decimated in large swathes of the United States, where drought has been the problem. But Charlie knows that the real life market farmers deal with will tell a very different story.

“The yield is such that the price really does not make too much difference,” he said.

The problem for growers so far as Charlie sees it is that food is priced too cheaply to consumers and does not accurately reflect production costs, nor allow for a decent profit margin.

He said: “You have concerns that it won’t cover the cost of production. Everybody moans about the subsidy that every farmer receives but ultimately it is a subsidy that ends up in people’s shopping basket. We do not pay the true value of food when it comes to shopping.”

Agrii agronomist, Sam Patchett, who has worked with the brothers, said: “Even in a season as favourable for disease as the most recent one, we’ve only had to treat the naked oats with Helix (prothioconazole + spiroxamine) twice – at T1 and T2. However, it’s a tall crop, so a robust PGR at T1 is imperative to keep it standing.

“Unlike wheat, you mustn’t wait for the grain to go hard before combining or you could be waiting for ever,” he warns. “Because the waxy straw takes an age to dry out naturally for baling, we reckon it’s advisable to employ Roundup pre-harvest to minimise unnecessary weather exposure; especially so given the straw’s value.”