Decision No. 1
The next part in the farming cycle is to make a decision about the application of Nitrogen fertilizer. This is the first decision that Peter is inviting us to take part in. The use of artificial fertilizers is a subject of debate – they increase yields and at the same time they cause problems in the wider environment. They are used widely across the world to increase crop productivity and yield and their usage is increasing.
You can read up on general background information from the fertilizer industry by clicking here.
You can read detailed information from (HGCA) Home Grown Cereals Authority which offers guidance to farmers by clicking here
You can read here about some of the problems with manufactured Nitrogen fertilisers clicking here
And here you read the concise history and a bit of science about Nitrogen fertiliser.
Our wheat seed is called JB Diego and came with a single purpose seed dressing that protects it against seed and soil borne disease. Neither the soil or wheat is organic, this is how Peter usually farms and is typical of 95% of arable farming in the UK. With this in mind Peter will talk through what he normally considers, then we can discuss the option and perhaps even come up with alternatives.
In theory the more Nitrogen fertilizer applied to a growing crop the greater the area of the plant that can absorb energy from the sun to deliver increased yield and therefore the greater the profits – only it doesn’t quite happen like that. There are a number of issues to take into account:
So as you can see it’s a balance between the potential for yield increase and therefore profits against the increased costs and risks from lodging, pest and disease and the cost to the environment.
What (happens or might happen) if we don’t use anything?
If we don’t use fertilizer then it’s safe to assume that yields will be lower, however that doesn’t necessarily mean that profits will be lower. Using Nitrogen fertilizer is a trade-off between increased costs and the potential increased quality/ yield/profit.
The quality of the harvested wheat is important. The grain trade requires wheat of specific quality which includes the weight of a known volume of the seed (now expressed as kg/hectolitre, this used to be known as the bushel weight). The weight of the wheat by volume is also important to us because if the harvested crop falls below the specified quality then there will be penalties imposed by the buyer and less profit for us. We will sell the wheat by weight and therefore wheat that is heavy by volume means that there are less wheat seeds per ton (because each single wheat seed is heavier), the yield in tonnes/ha increases and therefore the crop is more profitable. To try and make that simpler to understand – at the end of harvest we will have a heap of wheat in the barn. If the heap of wheat weighs heavy by volume we will sell more tonnes than if the wheat weighs light by volume.
So now to the numbers and economics.
Every crop would be assessed individually but as a rule of thumb:
I apply Nitrogen fertilizer in two applications to coincide with the times when the plant is developing most quickly and therefore needs additional nutrition. This is usually the first week in March and the last week in April (but with this mild winter the crop could be ahead of schedule this year).
22 acres (our field) = 8.9 hectares
The Nitrogen fertilizer I use comes in prills (a bit like small beads) that are 34.5% nitrogen by weight – that’s pretty much an industry standard concentration. The first application in March is 250kg/ha of 34.5% Nitrogen fertilizer followed by the second application in April of 375kg/ha of 34.5% Nitrogen fertilizer giving a total of 625kg/ha.
The price of 34.5% Nitrogen fertilizer for February delivery is currently around £220/ton so we are looking at investing £137.50/ha in Nitrogen fertilizer alone plus the cost of application, which for two applications is around £20/ha.
In order to make the use of Nitrogen fertilizer break even financially at today’s price (103.5/ton) we need to increase the amount of wheat produced by 1.5 tonnes per hectare. I would expect the Nitrogen fertilizer to increase the yield by around a third or 2.5 – 3 ton/ha
There are also the additional costs of fungicides, plant growth hormones and possibly pesticides to consider. However, it is extremely difficult to attribute plant protection costs (fungicides and pesticides) directly to the use of Nitrogen fertilizer but it is safe to assume that the use of nitrogen fertilizer will make the plant more vulnerable to disease and pest attack – but then it might be vulnerable without the use of Nitrogen fertilizer.
Summary of Stage One.
This stage of the decision is now closed, thank you to all those who contributed and followed the process, below is a summary of what was talked about.
The Field of Wheat collective will decide the story of this wheat field until harvest 2016. In the following summary we have tried to gather together some of the points of discussion that have arisen in Stage One discussions and questions and highlight options to focus the next stage. If you feel we have missed something in the summary that is important then let us know.
The cost to our environment of Nitrogen fertilizer:
Discussions were had around the potential damage to the environment caused by Nitrogen fertilizer including: the destruction of soil organisms; long term damage to soil health; reduced resilience to drought; ground water contamination and runoff; plants becoming vulnerable to pest and diseases leading to increased chemical inputs to prevent diseases and pests (all of which involve dependence on oil); impact of nitrous oxide produced in production of nitrogen fertilizer as a greenhouse gas and contributor to climate change; toxicity and pollution.
Yield, profit and the need to make a living:
The need to produce a good yield in order to ‘make a living’ – a profit rather than loss were discussed. The question of profitability was also talked about in relation between the organic and non-organic sector and the cost of organic fertilisers being expensive and probably unsuitable for use with conventional wheat varieties. It was stated that modern ‘conventional’ grain farming is not economic, with smaller profit margins and even losses being made year on year despite higher yields, and this pushing towards further intensity of production. The point was raised that lower yielding, high value heritage and alternative grains particularly for local markets could be produced with low inputs.
The cost and value of food:
Discussions occurred around Nitrogen fertilizer producing higher yields and therefore creating ‘affordable food’. Questions were raised about the actual nutritional quality of the food produced when using Nitrogen fertilizer and the hidden or real costs of eating cheap food (taking into account public, soil and wider environmental health) as well as asking how much of our income we are prepared to spend on food.
Nitrogen fertilizer as part of the current system:
The point was made that additional nitrogen was required to maximize the green canopy of modern wheat varieties to increase grain yields and protein content in grain and therefore increase the chance of having a higher yielding crop. In a time of low wheat prices and a highly competitive market a high yield becomes vital in order for the farmer to make a living. It was also pointed out that modern wheat varieties in a conventional farming system are locked-in to a nitrogen input regime.
A number of participants acknowledged the complexity of the decision and what the farmer has to deal with. Some participants stated that their personal preference was for buying, eating or growing some of their own food without chemical inputs and that the decision over nitrogen inputs was placing them in an uncomfortable place regarding their personal choices and values. Concerns were expressed in general about the harm done to the natural environment and depletion of natural resources.
Reflecting on the Process:
We would like to take the opportunity to address comments about the limitations of the decision itself and thank you for raising this point. As we said in the introduction to Decision No.1, we are aware that A Field of Wheat is only part of a process, a small segment of bigger cycles of activity and that there are inevitable limitations. We hope we have been clear, as Charlie points out in his post, that part of this project is to point out the conflicts, contradictions and complexity, limitations and functionality or dis-functionality of the current food commodity system. ‘Conventional farming’ accounts for around 95% of arable farming in the UK. It has always been our intention to work with a conventional farmer in order to illuminate the dominant food system in the UK. We are limited in how long we can sustain this project by our funding – we think there would be huge potential in doing a five-year project too!
For those who are part of the organic food system as consumers or growers we realize this must be a challenging decision to be part of and we appreciate your participation.
We also want to re-state that the wheat we are growing is JB Diego. This is classified as a feed grade wheat although artisan bakers could make bread with it and it could be used as a general purpose flour (see Farmer’s Almanac post). This means that normally this wheat is sold as animal feed on the global market and would most likely then become meat for humans to eat. Chicken is the biggest consumer of wheat in this country and 56% of wheat currently grown in the UK is feed wheat.
Finally, it is worth considering at this stage that the collective are all financially invested in the crop and therefore have a right to decide on how important or not profitability is for this project and any risks they are willing to take.
With this all in mind here you will find the outline for Stage Two’s discussion. This will be live until Wednesday 24th February at midday.