Growing Innovation and Environmental Focus
By James Simms
MAIDWELL, England ─ It looked like a bumper crop ─ of weeds that is. The plot about 20 meters away, meanwhile, planted with the same crop of wheat looked picture perfect.
But this is no ordinary field. It’s used to grow and test different types of cover crops. Old hat to some farmers, growers plant these special crops not for food but between growing seasons to cut back on weeds, improve soil quality and reduce the amount of herbicide and fertiliser used.
With today’s catalogue of herbicides becoming less effective against weeds, increasing government regulations and consumer awareness regarding crop-protection chemicals and fertilisers, and their financial burden, demand in the UK and globally is increasing for more ecologically sound, cost-effective and efficient ways to farm and control pests.
The problem of weeds, especially blackgrass, growing amongst cereal crops such as wheat and barley is “one of the biggest” facing UK agriculture today, says Agrovista UK Limited Managing Director Chris Clayton. With over GBP150 million in sales, the company is No. 3 by revenue for agricultural chemical inputs in the UK.
“This weed is now very resistant to most of the chemistry that we’ve used in the past to control it and is becoming a significant burden. We are targeting our research and development on how we can control this weed, knowing that we cannot rely only on chemicals,” he says.
And while cover crops are one critical way to gain cheaper and greener farming, they must be used smartly, including differing the timing and type of the cash crop and cover planted. Farmers have used cover crops for decades to varying levels of success. But finding the most effective recipe takes a lot of time, knowledge, investment and scientific trials.
Over the past four years, Agrovista has been working at its 40acre (15ha), Project Lamport test site to find the best ways to control blackgrass. Among the 14 different plots, the results are evident when looking at the differences in the weed populations and crop yields between the different plots, especially the two above.
In the most successful test, a combination of herbicides and a cover of oats and berseem clover, which was followed by spring wheat, not only reduced blackgrass “massively,” it also resulted in a 20% higher yield, says Agrovista agronomist Robert Sheets. The area that ended up a thicket of weeds had relied only on herbicides.
Branching Out Through R&D, Into Higher-Margin Areas
Still, getting to the point where cover crops could make a major difference took Agrovista much effort and money. And it’s just one instance of its industry-leading R&D program, says Clayton, adding that the company probably spends more than rivals on R&D, as a percentage of profit.
“We invest significant funds in developing pragmatic solutions for our farmers. I think that sets us apart from our competitors,” he says. “It’s not just about producing more; it’s about producing more in an environmentally sustainable way.”
Today, about 80% of Agrovista’s revenue comes from chemical inputs for wheat, rapeseed which is used to produce edible oil and animal feed, and other broadacre crops. To reduce that high concentration, its strategy is to expand sales in other segments and businesses, such as crop agronomy consulting, fresh produce, greenhouse crops and servicing golf courses and parks. Focusing R&D on promising areas, namely higher-margin proprietary products and high-tech precision agriculture has become a requirement in this demanding industry.
That line of products unique to Agrovista, Discovery, is used with other companies’ chemicals or on their own to improve the efficiency and efficacy of planting, fertilisers and chemical inputs. These spray-application aids called adjuvants can be mixed, for example, with fertilisers to improve their uptake by crops, or with weed-control agents to reduce spray drifting.
While maintaining the same results – or improving upon them – with lower application volumes, these products enable farmers to produce more with less and with a lower environmental impact. For example, Mark Palmer, international business manager for Discovery, says that using the company’s adjuvants in disease and weed control in a wheat field increases yields. That’s a return of up to eight times the amount spent, he adds.
Another focus is on precision agriculture, which about 30% of UK growers and approximately 70% of the large farms employ, says Lewis McKerrow, Agrovista’s precision technology manager.
Aspects of this include: data collection on soil nutrition and health, crop yields and weather through various sensors, such as on drones and satellites, and its analysis; and global-positioning satellite coordinates. Another aspect, automated application of fertiliser based on soil nutrition levels, is now very common. As sprayer technology evolves this automated application to specific areas of the field will also apply to chemicals such as herbicides and fungicides, and this will help keep growers in line with strict UK regulations on traceability and dosage levels. Also critical is accessing and analysing that information – eventually utilising big data – through web portals and apps on smartphones and tablets in the field.
“The challenge in the next five years is to make those data sets into one – what I call data-enhanced decision making” – to give the best advice to farmers, Mr. McKerrow says. That might include data, for example, on soil type and quality and weather to help select the right seed type for a specific field, he adds.
Agrovista’s Hands-On Professionals Make Crucial Difference
But data, R&D, technology and crop-protection chemicals alone won’t meet the growing needs of farmers. That involves getting one’s hands dirty. And that’s where Agrovista’s professionals come in.
A third-generation farmer, Ed Hammond of John Hammond Farms, which grows potatoes, sugar beets, wheat and barley, says that Agrovista “stands out” from its peers. That’s because of the information its agronomists pass on from the company’s different R&D trials, including the “big aspect of the moment” of introducing cover crops, and how keen they are to be involved in the day-to-day aspect of farming and planning, he says.
“Agrovista in the last year has helped us reduce our costs for plant-protection products by 5%. That’s primarily down to communication, availability of products and advice and timing,” Mr. Hammond says.
Another grower, Clive Baxter of Westerhill Farm, which cultivates 350 acres of top fruit including pears and apples, says the Agrovista team has impressed him with its enthusiasm and technical knowledge, including its crop and weather monitoring to determine when and how to deal with diseases and pests.
“You want that enthusiasm coming through to help you through the bad days,” he says, noting the “roller-coaster ride” aspect of farming, specifically due to variations in fruit prices and weather. “When I am getting some advice – and having a cup of tea in the afternoon, it definitely makes me feel a lot more enthusiastic as a fruit farmer.”
His orchard’s agronomist Alex Radu says that the company’s relationship with customers is “based on trust, and the growers appreciate our technical approach, advice and consistency”.
Agrovista’s Clayton says he’s proud of the feedback from customers and the innovation the company brings to UK agriculture. “A happy farmer is a good customer and a loyal customer,” he says. “And together we are solving their problems and helping them run a very successful business.”