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Record puts Canterbury croppers at top

Words by Richard Rennie

12 June 2017

Eric Watson downplays his status as a world record holder for his latest wheat crop yield, but dig a bit further and it becomes apparent the long-time Canterbury crop farmer is quietly chuffed to have made his way into the esteemed Guinness Book of Records with his latest crop.

Eric and Maxine Watson had the honour confirmed in April after the February harvest of 11.9 ha of Oakley feed wheat from Carrfields after all the official boxes were ticked and signed off by Guinness.

Having their names in the book that includes all manner of records from the sublime to the ridiculous has the Watsons helping push the Canterbury arable industry another step up the ladder of excellence.

For their award marks the second world record to be set in the region in as many years with Warren and Joy Darling of Timaru setting new heights for barley with their crop back in 2015.

Harvesting a 16.79 t per hectare wheat crop left no doubt about the record’s standing, having smashed the earlier 16.5 t per hectare set in the United Kingdom. 

But Eric’s pride in the award goes beyond simply having the recognition in the famed book.

He believes the recognition awards like his generate for the industry is invaluable for a sector that internationally barely rates in terms of its scale, but is punching well above that scale for its productivity and crop quality.

“The simple reality is we cannot produce on the same scale as countries in Europe or the United States. But we are proving New Zealand, and particularly Canterbury, has very high quality crops, both in cereals and in high value seed crops.”

Eric admits he is comfortable growing most crop types, and there are few in his cropping career he has not had a season trying.

“They are pretty much of a muchness, but I do enjoy growing ryegrass. This year it proved quite tricky, the later maturing crop of it was not as great as I would have thought, while the earlier maturing varieties were better than I would have expected, it was a surprise.”

He regularly grows seed crops of pak choi, radish, red beet, corn salad and spinach. He attributes the region’s success in such high value crops to the “sweet spot” of the 44th southern parallel that sits just south of Ashburton, almost bulls eye around his property.

“We also have very consistent, good quality soils - in our case with Wakanui and Templeton silt loams.

“And there is a real commitment here among growers to produce really good crops, they are doing this because they want to, they enjoy it and happen to be good at it.”

He acknowledges the pressures the region’s arable sector has been under from dairying’s advances in recent years.

However with dairy conversion becoming ever more expensive and limited by environmental constraints, he sees the land that remains in arable as almost too valuable to put into ryegrass, clover and cows.

“We are also starting to learn more about what else can be grown here with smart irrigation and fertiliser, including crops like potatoes and cabbages, the options seem to be opening up even further.”

The Watsons’ family farm at Ealing developed border dyke flood irrigation from the 1960s and 70s, in a mixed sheep and cropping situation. But 1992 saw them move to the better cropping soils at Wakanui, with more reliable overhead spray irrigation.

Today the farm operates 9 linear irrigators, most of which have variable rate systems tuned to soil moisture levels and soil type to ensure only optimal application at the right time, without losses of the valuable water, and accompanying nutrients, through the soil profile.

“But if you have a constant soil type, variable rate irrigation can also be a cost you don’t really need to incur. Overall though the arable industry is getting smarter about its water use, knowing over-watering can do almost as much harm as underwatering.”

The sector is also optimising nutrient use more, becoming more aware of a crop’s specific agronomy so that nutrients are applied when the crop can best utilise them, and at the appropriate rate,  thus helping minimise over-application and potential losses through the soil profile and into underground water systems.

Eric uses deep soil nitrogen testing in spring time, down to 60cm, which recognises the ability of crops like wheat to pull nitrogen up from such depths.

“I have done it for years and could not farm as effectively or efficiently without it, it ensures we are only putting on what nitrogen is necessary.”

Eric and Maxine have also been working closely with FAR (Foundation for Arable Research), on the Forages for Reduced Nitrate Leaching project. This is a multi-year project is aiming to reduce nitrate losses through urinary output, hold more nitrogen in soils and maximise yields and nitrogen use efficiency in forage crops, providing solutions to integrate into both dry-stock, mixed and dairy systems.

Initial trial data indicates plantain has a valuable role to play in helping achieve the project’s goals. This includes DairyNZ data showing plantain is a key species whose presence can help increase dry matter production in a pasture mix and reduce nitrogen concentration.

“Maxine has been involved in the work and has been very encouraged by what it is finding.”

In assessing the record breaking crop, Eric admits there were some tense moments during harvest as especially when he was told, with one load to go, he still needed 12 tonne.

The harvested crop had to be run over a certified weigh bridge and audited by an inspector from the verification company SGS, checking each load, followed by moisture testing.

He attributes much of the success to input from a range of industry specialists from seed through to nutrients and spray treatments. The Oakley variety was purchased from Carrfields.

Carrfields’ Cereal Seed Product Manager, Phil Smith, said he was thrilled to see two world records set in Canterbury in a short space of time.

“It’s fantastic that these world records have both been set right here in Canterbury and we’re immensely proud that both the farmers are Carrfields customers,” he says.

“It’s very humbling to see all the work we have put in with our breeders to develop the best seeds for our customers now come to fruition with two world-beating yields in two years.”

Eric also attributed the input from Bayer Crop Science to helping ensure optimal crop treatments were used at the best time of the growth phase.  This had included the use of a broad spectrum dual fungicide Prosaro.

Bayer New Zealand Crop Science Country Manager, Scott Hanson, says the record is not only an important achievement for the Watsons, but for New Zealand as a whole.

“For me, the record demonstrates the skill set that we have in New Zealand in the arable industry. The New Zealand grain and seed industry is an important part of the global seed market. Farmers like Eric and Maxine demonstrate what New Zealand can do at a global level truly promotes our industry to the world.”

Eric said input from Yara had also proven invaluable in ensuring he had applied the right rate of nutrients to optimise crop growth early on and final yield potential.

“Paul Johnson was taking leaf samples over the growing season. We used a few trace elements which help with yield and quality, including magnesium, manganese and zinc.”

Eric has been working with variable-rate lime, potash and phosphate applications over the past eight years to optimise application, matching application to soil sample results from across the farm.

“The amount of money you can save by not over-applying fertiliser more than makes up for the cost of the soil sampling you need to do. This year we have applied less phosphate and we have evened up our soil pH across the farm. That has been reflected in the yield figures from this wheat crop which proved to be pretty even throughout.”

One of the biggest challenges he has had is trying to spread nitrogen urea across a 32 metre tramlines.

“We are looking to go all liquid nitrogen application this year which will enable us to spread with greater consistency.”

This harvesting season has proven to be particularly challenging for Canterbury arable farmers, with the rain welcomed by pastoral farmers a bit of a curse over harvest time. 

“The weather will dictate what we will do for planting, but it’s been a tough one, and high yielding wheat should really be in the ground now, (mid-April) to get the best start.”

While the Guinness award does not bring any financial payout with it, for Eric that is not the goal. The profile it has helped build for his industry is worth far more.

“It’s a great thing, we are such a small and relatively unrecognised sector, and under-rated too I feel. New Zealand arable farmers are  pretty switched-on people. I have travelled a bit around other arable areas of the world, and our arable guys can be proud of what they do and how well they do it.”