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Boosting crop health with tailored nutrition and biologicals: Insights from a British potato grower

A Yorkshire farmer in Britain credits the use of tailored nutrition and some biologicals with boosting the overall health of his potato crop.

Richard Smith farms 3,000 acres of combinable crops including wheat, barley and oilseed rape, 80ha of sugar beet and 320ha of potatoes at Bamburgh Grange Farm near Doncaster.

In order to get his potato crop in the best possible shape to cope with fluctuating weather patterns and periods of stress, Richard has been applying calcium phosphite for the past five years.

“Biologicals have a part to play in general crop health – keeping them in the mix is important, it’s just vital that you understand where best to use them in your programme and having the flexibility – there’s no point putting them on in hindsight,” he says.

“You need to predict where the weather conditions appear to be going and apply them in advance before the problem is there.”

The importance of calcium

Richard, a third generation McCain potato farmer and winner of the 2019 McDonald’s Outstanding Farmer of the Year Award, has been convinced of the benefits of applying calcium phosphite for several years. 

Unical, produced by Unium Biosciences, is first applied to Richard’s 320ha potato crop at planting.

“Calcium is a nutrient that is taken up by the roots and then travels north up the plant so the idea of applying it to the soil makes sense,” he says. “Phosphite creates a healthier root system, more active in terms of exudations which means you improve scavenging and have a better acquisition of soil nutrients especially phosphorus.

A later foliar application of Calfite Extra is applied during the growing season at the onset of tuber bulking. This is a perfect marriage of calcium, phosphite and PGA (pyroglutamic acid) which enhances N assimilation.

“While calcium does not travel from the leaf to the tubers, it prevents, at times of stress, calcium being removed from the tubers and going into the foliage,” he says.

“It provides general plant health benefits better able to withstand abiotic stress and helps create a healthy root system, so I’m convinced it’s the right thing to do. Especially as it’s so cost effective.”

The value of tailored crop nutrition

At a time when the cost of inputs has rocketed and cost of living has soared, tailored nutrition and biologicals provide a cheaper means of boosting plant nutritional health and resilience.

“Risk management in the potato business is relatively simple to talk about but very difficult to do,” Richard says.

“The cost of growing the crop is now enormous and the risks associated are also huge. We’ve got to cover some of that risk somehow. That means investment in new technologies and trying to make everything a bit more robust.”

Richard believes nutrition and biologicals can play a key role in bolstering crops so they can withstand episodes of extreme weather.

“There are increasingly massive fluctuations in the weather patterns,” he says. “You can have a frost in May and then 40-degree heat soon after. This puts huge pressure on crops so farmers need to figure out how they can manage that pressure and see crops through stressful periods with some of the biologicals and formulations that are now available.”

Managing the dwindling availability of pesticides

As well as helping farmers manage the stress caused by fluctuating weather patterns, biologicals will play a part in helping businesses manage the lack of available pesticides.

“We are losing any number of pesticidal products over time and the answer doesn’t always come out of a can anymore,” Richard says.

“New technology in terms of pesticides just isn’t happening because it’s very expensive to register something and we’re losing an awful lot of the active ingredients we’ve already got. So our toolbox of chemicals is much smaller.

Keeping crops healthy

“We need products that can help us keep our crops healthy and that’s where biologicals will come in.”

As well as using Unical at planting and Calfite Extra as a foliar, Richard has started using Luxor, another offering from Unium Biosciences.

“Luxor is an organically complexed phosphorus source,” he says. “Some of our land is rented and in some circumstances you can look to apply it as a means of making sure you’re not deficient in phosphate on soils that are typically low in it.

“It’s basically a very pure form of ortho and poly phosphate in a humic/fulvic acid complex which can be soil applied or foliar applied, which means the product is very efficient at getting phosphate into the plant.

“We’re just beginning to play with it – I’ve seen it used in trials and looked at the results and it is quite exciting.”

Understanding the science behind biologicals

Richard believes the key with biologicals is to understand the science behind them and how they work, in order to get the best out of them.

“The issue is knowing when and where to put them, but I believe biologicals have a key part to play,” he says.

“Understanding how the technology works is the challenge – you can get it to work, but what’s key is understanding the interaction that takes place either within the soil or within the plant,” Richard explains. “That’s needed to ensure it works reliably and consistently, which is ultimately the challenge.

“Pesticides kill whatever weed or pest they’re applied to which is a direct relationship – anyone can chuck a lot of chemical on a crop and claim they did a wonderful job. 

“With biologicals it helps to understand the chain of events necessary to get the desired result.”

Although it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly to what extent Unical, Calfite Extra and Luxor have increased yield, Richard credits his use of these biologicals with boosting the marketability of his potato crop and his overall gross margin.

“They have definitely had an effect on tuber quality which has, in turn, boosted saleable yield and the marketability of my potatoes,” he explains.

“I’m also very positive about the other products Unium Biosciences has in the pipeline – the results I’ve seen look very promising.”

Source: Unium Biosciences
Photo: Credit Katuschka from Pixabay

Editor & Publisher: Lukie Pieterse


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