Sowing and Planting

Optimising the selection of crops and their varieties

New crop varieties, new fertilisers and plant protection products, agricultural machinery and production technologies are appearing, as well as new requirements and needs of crop buyers and processors. Climatic conditions are changing. Agricultural knowledge is evolving and the identification of good supply and sales markets requires a wealth of knowledge that the farmer often lacks the time to acquire. Nowadays, an extremely useful source of knowledge on any subject, including crop cultivation, is the internet.

However, the knowledge provided there does not always come from reliable sources and is not always up-to-date. Therefore, it is advisable to verify it in other available sources, e.g. in writing or through training. A good way out of this situation is to make use of the knowledge of professional advisors who can help optimise the farm’s activities today and balance the farm’s directions for future success. This way of exchanging knowledge has the fundamental advantage of enabling us to obtain advice or answers to current questions, verifying what we have previously been advised and what the results of implementation have been. In addition, it provides an opportunity to avoid misunderstandings and mistakes thanks to the experience of the advisor having contact with dozens of farmers during one growing season. A reliable advisor has the opportunity to check the relevance of his recommendations in one season more than once, thus becoming more credible, even if he recommends withdrawing from some recommendations the following year – with proper justification.

Different varieties, even of the same crop, can have different nutritional, water, soil and crop protection needs. When optimising production, it is worth identifying which varieties are best suited to farm conditions. When comparing varieties, it is important to observe their needs in detail and calculate the costs and income generated. The large amount of work on the farm does not allow the farmer to compare many varieties to identify those best suited to farm conditions. Official comparisons are made by the Experimental Variety Evaluation Stations – COBORU and breeding companies for their advice and marketing. COBORU, based on its PDO research, creates ‘Recommended Variety Lists’ for cultivation in the area of a particular province, available at this address. Breeding companies provide their own recommendations for the cultivation of specific varieties, in different regions of the country. Both sources of knowledge on recommended varieties can be used to select a few varieties whose characteristics are worth comparing when growing them on your own farm. When selecting such a “short list” of varieties, it is also worth taking into account the marketability of the crop of a given variety, which is not examined by COBORU or breeding companies. Once the varieties have been selected, they should be sown in adjacent “strips”, i.e. several passes of the seeder or planter, so that this is at least the working width of the combine when the crop is harvested. This proximity of sowing several varieties gives a good chance that the conditions for growing them will be very similar, which is absolutely necessary for reliable evaluation and comparison of results. Comparisons of varieties made in different fields, with different histories, forecrops, fertilisation, in different years and with different weather patterns, have no cognitive or useful value, they can only mislead. Assessing the yield of many varieties on our farm can be facilitated by a yield mapping system for groups of species such as cereals, oilseeds or legumes mounted on newer types of combine. In order for the yield mapping system to work correctly, i.e. to record the actual crop yields, it is necessary to calibrate it, which we carry out in an area of the field that is not our ‘experience’. Calibration, in this case, is the comparison of the crop weight from an area, as recorded by the combine harvester’s yield mapping system, with the actual crop weight from the same area, weighed on a weighbridge. The yield map, e.g. for grain, allows us to illustrate how varieties grown right next to each other have yielded over the field, where there are more or less fertile areas. So we can assess whether the response of varieties under the same weather conditions to different growing conditions was similar. By documenting the measures with their rationale and results, the farm creates its own knowledge for more efficient and optimised market production.

Inherent in agricultural activity is the risk associated with weather, organisational and market hazards that may arise. Good farm management is about minimising risks, through the use of technical solutions (machinery and equipment, protective measures) as well as organisational (alternative supply and sales markets, additional sources of income) and financial solutions (insurance and secure financing of activities). The basis, however, is choosing the right crops and building soil fertility, the factors that have the greatest impact on yield levels.

Different varieties, even of the same crop, can also differ significantly in their production and financial effect. When optimising and balancing production, it is worth identifying which varieties are best suited to farm conditions and adapting the production process and technical equipment accordingly. Skilful variety selection means identifying many technologically and market-important characteristics of a variety at the same time, not just its yield. However, it is very difficult to select an ‘ideal’ variety that meets a number of requirements at a very high level at the same time. There is a well-known saying that quantity does not go hand in hand with quality and this also applies to plant varieties. A good example of this regularity is the relationship between yield and winter hardiness of varieties, where, in general, less winter-hardy varieties yield better. It is then worth considering sowing varieties that overwinter better and more reproducibly in cold years, even though they yield less. It is also possible to enter into a calculated risk that, in a worst-case scenario, will not undermine the financial stability of the farm. In the case of plant varieties where the quality of the raw material obtained is very important, e.g. quality wheat, malting barley, potatoes for the production of chips or crisps, it is sometimes necessary to make compromises so that the raw material meets the expected requirements and the financial result is satisfactory for the farm, even at the expense of lower yields.

The cultivation of certain varieties, for example, may involve a very high risk of poor overwintering when sown after late pre-crops, e.g. winter wheat after late-harvested sugar beet. It is always better to assume a harsh winter rather than a mild one. It is a good idea to get an idea of the risks involved in growing your chosen crop, or even variety, based on the experience of other farmers, preferably from the same area. However, if you are the forerunner of a variety in the area, this is not possible. Then we are left to look for information about it in other sources, from advisers, contractors, breeders, even abroad. In addition, it is important for the farmer to have a clause in the contracting agreement, which must clearly specify what the consequences of not fulfilling the contract will be, e.g. in the event of the variety required by the contracting company dying out. It is always less of an agricultural risk to grow at least two plant species or two varieties that have different weather requirements. Only the acquisition of experience (either on one’s own or from reliable sources) related to the cultivation of these varieties should be the basis for decisions on a larger scale. When starting to farm on neglected fields, just purchased or leased, the problem can arise of low yields of poor quality from varieties that satisfactorily reveal their yield potential under normal growing conditions. As a rule, such fields, with impoverished soils in poor culture, must first be remedied by, for example, liming, weeding, eliminating soil and subsoil compaction, repairing the drainage system, etc. By carrying out these measures, they can best be used for fodder crops, and once improvements have been made, they can be sown with crops with higher requirements.