BASF Agricultural Solutions UK

May Pulse Check

Next in the Pulse Check series is John Charles-Jones, who farms 245ha on the northern side of Nottingham. The farm sits on steep slopes of silty clay loam. Spring beans are a financially valuable crop within John’s rotation. In the interview below we explore his approaches to rotations, drilling and crop protection.

What variety of spring beans are you growing?

“This year we're growing Lynx, which we’ve grown for a couple of years. We feel it offers a step up in yield from our previous variety, Fuego.”

How will spring beans fit into your rotation? How many acres are you growing?

“We’re not a big farm. We've got approximately about 170ha in arable rotation altogether.

“We were settling into a nice routine of 50% first wheat, 25% OSR and 25% spring beans but there was a combination of events, including horrendous weather in 2020 and 2021, which crucified our rotation.

“In 2020, for the first time in my career, we weren’t able to grow any wheat at all. The OSR we had planted had to be written off too, partly because of the weather and partly because of cabbage stem flea beetle. That year we maxed-out on beans, as much as the rotation would allow. To a lesser degree, the same happened last year - we didn't get all the wheat in, which again, messed up the rotation. It wasn’t helped by the fact we had dropped OSR.

“This year we're just under 25% spring beans but next year, we won't be growing any, which is a shame. It is a great crop but it’s not wise to grow beans on the same land more than one year in four – even that’s pushing it.

“If I could, I’d widen the rotation but I'm nearly a one-man band and I've very challenging topography. To make the farm work, I need to maintain a really simple system.”

You said spring beans are a great crop, what is it that they're bringing to the rotation?

“Money! That maybe putting it too bluntly, but we are very business-focused and so the rotation has to earn. We are very, but not exclusively, gross margin led in terms of the rotation that we do.

“We've only been at this farm since 2003 and it had never previously grown OSR, so we had a honeymoon of wheat and OSR for a few years. 2012 was one of those really wet years and we didn't get any OSR established. In order to maintain first wheats, we planted beans late spring 2013. They were the ‘crop of the year’ by a country mile.

“Our five-year gross margin average of spring beans is not far adrift from our wheat - that may imply we don't do our wheat very well, I don't know. I hope not!”

How do you achieve those gross margins?

“I'm very focused on attention to detail, or try to be. Having a small acreage undoubtedly helps - we can afford to be patient and drill, or get inputs on, in a timely fashion. Spring beans are a relatively low input crop, which does benefit the gross margin, but I don't grow them because of it. Our five-year yield average is just under 5.5t/ha.”

How do you establish your beans?

“It has changed a bit over the years. In 2013 and 2014 we subsoiled in the spring and used a Vaderstad drill. We got good establishment but also had some fantastic flushes of blackgrass. We were then coming out of beans with more blackgrass than we started with!

“We didn’t grow any beans in 2015 purely for that reason. In 2016 we restarted but prepared the beds in autumn and drilled the seed in the spring. It made a made a big difference.

“We haven't got a lot of cultivation equipment. We were subsoiling and doing a very shallow discing in September, spraying off any volunteers or weeds, and then going through, very crudely, with a cultivator before leaving it to over-winter. In the spring, the field would just be sprayed off ahead of drilling. We could get away with that because there’s an element of cultivation on the front of the Vaderstad drill which would level the soil nicely.

“Last year we started taking it a step further towards no-till and drilled straight into stubbles. This year, we did the autumn low disturbance sub soil work, rolled it and left it for the winter.”

When do you drill your spring beans?

“It very much depends on the weather and conditions. Usually, we drill in spring, but we have tried sowing them in autumn.

“In 2019 we drilled on 31st October. PGRO had been trialling autumn sowings of spring beans and found they did well. If the plants are small, frosts won’t kill them. It would be fair to ask why I’m not growing winter beans, and the answer is flexibility. With challenging topography and heavy soils, autumn drilling is by no means guaranteed and winter beans don’t grow well when planted in spring.

“When sowing the crop in the spring, it is usually the third or fourth week of March before we’re able to get on the land. We have sown in late April too.

“Spring beans like to get up and away. They don’t like to sit in cold or dry soils so it’s more important, I feel, to wait for good conditions before planting.”

What’s your approach to weed, pest and disease control?

“I'm not BASIS trained so we rely on, and follow the advice of, our agronomist. That doesn't mean we don’t challenge him, nor does it mean we don’t tweak the occasional recommendation, but we rate him very highly and have a great working relationship.

“I draw upon independent organisations like ADAS and NIAB TAG too. And I’m involved in the Pulse YEN. It’s fascinating - in comparison with other crops, we actually know very little about how to grow beans.

“I’m very happy to invest in my spring bean crops and with both chocolate spot and rust I feel that you need to be on the front foot, so we do apply fungicides regularly. Last year we had a trial containing Signum which worked well.

“I don’t like using insecticides but will if we need to. For example, I’ll control bean weevil to help get the crop established. We aim for the human consumption market and have tried to control bruchid beetle in the past, but not very successfully – even when optimising applications. There used to be a valuable premium for the hitting the grade but in recent years that’s not often be available, so now I take the approach that if the crop makes the grade, great. If not, so be it.”

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