No room for error in Formula 1 Farming

The Black Earth region of Russia offer growers an opportunity for Formula 1 farming. With high organic matter (OM), good levels of phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) leading to good soil mineralisation, plus a short growing period, the crops just ‘motor’ on. Tillage Technology finds out more

Growing in the fast lane leaves no room for error and no second chances, says Colin Hinchley, who manages farms 450 km south of Moscow.

There is just one opportunity to apply herbicide or fungicide; if it does not work it is too late for a second application as crop growth stage (GS) will have moved on or reached maturity.

This because the growing season races by in the Black Earth region; winter lasts for six months, but soils then move from -30 deg. C to 30 deg. C in just a couple of months.

Summer is short, and crops have a growing season of just 90 – 100 days to be ready for harvesting. This is just two thirds or the time most crops have in similar latitudes.

Black soil absorbs sunlight and warms up more quickly than other soils, helping crops get away promptly once spring arrives.

If it rains in May, locals from the region often say you do not need an agronomist, independent soils and cultivations advisor Philip Wright, director of Wright Resolutions tells Tillage Technology.

But they are probably wrong – the need for accurate timing emphasises the need for great agronomy, says Mr Hinchley. 

With moisture as one of the main constraints to high yields across the region, when it is freely available both crops and weeds grow so fast that Mr Hinchley, who has been managing 20,000 ha in the Black Earth region for over twenty years, coined the phrase ‘Formula 1 Farming’.

Mr Wright, who has also years of experience working with farmers in both Russia and Ukraine, says: “With the high spring temperatures, and levels of nutrients available in the soil, there is significant potential yield.”

But, as with any farming area, there are real challenges. “In this area there are fast growing weeds and insects with big appetites which can annihilate the crop.” 

Ukraine, with some areas having an even drier climate, has more issues for achieving top yields; there is a real need to conserve water. With numerous microclimates, and different soil types, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and a spade is the agronomist’s best friend. 

“To be successful you need to know your soil and its limitations. That means getting a spade and digging the soil through to depth to take a judgement. Just looking at the crop you have just harvested is not good enough.”

He advocates taking it on a field by field basis, so any necessary soil amendments or changes in growing strategy can be properly thought through. Residue management is important; it should be even and consistent and provide what the soil needs for the next crop, he says. 

“In general, combines are poor at chopping and spreading residue, so you need to consider how you will manage when it comes to planting; this depends on winter breakdown of residues.”

If properly managed and evenly spread, they can help retain allimportant moisture, so he advises training combine teams to level it out as much as possible.

“If you have big volumes of heaped straw, it may well need more cultivation as the residues may not be in the right place.” As in all parts of the world, pans of compaction can be a real headache, as they can prevent roots from extending downwards through the profile so they can effectively scavenge water and nutrients. Harvesting in wet weather can be a killer for soils, he adds. 

Mr Wright says: “There is general agreement that preventing the problem as far as possible better than trying to remedy it. Therefore, controlling field traffic and compaction, for example by avoiding trucks driving randomly across fields, can make a real difference.”

Getting strategy right for planting time and nutrition is key. “You have to know exactly when you want the crop to get away quickly; too early and wet seedbeds, plus late frosts can make a mess of spring planting.”

Mr Hinchley says: “The secret is in the preparation and getting the right ingredients and dynamics. Here we are achieving wheat yields up to 8-10t/ha, which although lower than in Western Europe, provide good  business.”