Close finish likely in SRUC student’s Winter Wheat Challenge

This seasons Winter Wheat Challenge is hotting up and, according to SRUC supervising staff, the competition has never been closer at this time of year.

The annual challenge is sponsored by the Mains of Loirston Trust which was established in 2007 by NE farmer, the late Alexander W Allan.  He was committed to advancing education in the practice and science of agriculture in Scotland.  The competition encourages the next generation of farmers and agronomists by giving them their own plots of winter wheat to manage with the winners achieving the best return from their crop after “paying” their fixed costs.

This year’s competition is bigger than ever with 20 teams and over 70 contestants, from all six SRUC campuses and representative of all levels of education offered by SRUC from Higher National Certificate to Masters Degree. Each team makes its own decisions about what inputs to use on its crops, selecting variety, seed rate, fertiliser and pest protection. Each entry is replicated on three sites, in Aberdeenshire, Fife and Midlothian and are managed by the SRUC team which normally looks after official crop trials.

At the Aberdeenshire trial site students recently met agronomists, John Hamilton and Katty Downie from Agrii together with Ben Lowe from Agrovista. Both John and Ben had competed as students at SRUC. Together agronomists and students judged the plots to see if they could predict a winner. However, the group left without any consensus, predicting that it could be any one of 6 teams.

Having been involved in the competition, whilst a studying with SRUC in Edinburgh Ben Low believes it is important to get the basics right, including the correct seed rate and use of Nitrogen. Catching his and Katey’s eye was an entry sown in October and benefitting from a higher seed rate. The use of early Nitrogen had also helped thicken the crop for a potentially higher yield.

In contrast John was torn between a number of entries and was pleased to see some solid fungicide programmes. Recent warm weather meant the plots had moved quickly through the growth stages, whilst dry conditions (then) meant disease levels were generally low compared with the same time last year so some teams had reduced fungicide rates or even missed sprays. John, who is also presently studying part time for a Masters in Agricultural Professional Practice, believes growers should be cautious about that approach and consider if the variety being grown has adequate levels of inherent resistance to any diseases which might cause a problem.

However Dr Alex Hilton, lecturer at the Aberdeen Campus, is happy for teams to make mistakes. He said: “This is a safe environment in which to misjudge things and we can all learn from each other when this happens. Teams have a lot to consider, from inputs like seed, fungicide and fertiliser as well as the final market for their crop, milling or feed. For many students it’s the first time they have had to make agronomic decisions.”

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