Willi Drews: Our seeds come complete with high-yielding technologies

Publications,

Aktualnye Agrosistemy Magazine, Issue 7-8, July-August 2017

The choice of best-adapted seeds with a potential is one of the major factors for attaining a high yield. We discuss what criteria the choice of seeds should be based on and what technologies are worth taking on board for those wishing to achieve high yields of different crops without compromising their quality in an interview with Willi Drews, Doctor of Agronomy, an advisor of EkoNiva-Semena, which has a proven track-record as a reliable supplier of quality seeds of wheat, barley, peas, soybeans, lentils, etc.

Aktualnye Agrosistemy: Willi, what standards do farmers currently strive towards when choosing seeds of cereal crops, among others?

Drews: Naturally, first comes a high yield potential. Today, farmers demand of us that the seeds of winter wheat produce — after good previous crops and an optimum fertilizer supply — a whopping 7-8 t/ha, where formerly 3-4 t/ha was enough.

In recent years, the productivity of winter wheat has routinely reached 6-7 t/ha in the fields of our holding, and the same holds true for other enterprises operating, say, in Kursk oblast, where, by the way, the core seed-growing enterprise of the holding called Zashchintoye, LLC operates. A lot of large-scale enterprises as well as private growers implementing intensive production technologies seek to buy precisely such seeds and we work hard to cater to their needs.

Next comes the quality of seeds which is also crucial to our customers. Last year, Russia reaped a record wheat crop, yet it was reported that more often than not the quality left much to be desired. Of course, late harvesting times also played their part, but it was largely due to the use of low-quality seeds. We guarantee excellent quality of our seeds providing a high yield and wheat of no less than third class (24% gluten content) quality to our customers.

A lot of requests come for seeds of intensive and semi-intensive varieties. Intensive varieties should be sown after good preceding crops, but currently not every enterprise can afford black fallow in its crop rotation, so they tend to abandon the practice, sowing wheat after peas and other crops instead. The demand is currently high for those varieties, which produce good quality wheat. It’s not just seeds that we sell to growers, they come complete with agricultural technologies ensuring a high-quality crop.

Aktualnye Agrosistemy: Aren’t farmers deterred by the high expenses which the use of these technologies entails?

Drews: If a grower wants to have a quality crop, to improve yields, then increased expenses are required. The expenses associated with utilising our technologies are offset by a higher yield. Our guidelines are categorical in this regard, and we clear it up with the farmers in advance: if the desired yield is over 5 t/ha, then 2 fungicide treatments will be necessary, if you expect less than 5 t — one. A certain nutrient management and crop protection schedule is set up depending on the desired yield and quality. Unless the guidelines are strictly observed, the yield will fall short of your expectations. It is not simply crop care that we provide farmers with, but complete stand management technologies. Targets by the harvesting time should be around 550 spikes per 1 sq. m for winter wheat varieties that tiller well, or 600-650 spikes/sq. m for spring wheat, such as our Triso variety, or 750 spikes/sq. m for barley. The yield components are under control. In Europe, the seeding rate is fairly low, about 350-400 kernels/sq. m, but climate is different there, whereas in Russia tillering often takes place in unfavourable conditions and gets shortened by 4 days or more, resulting in a tillering rate of 1.5 instead of 2-2.5, which forces us to increase the seeding rate somewhat, whereas the spike number per sq. m is a universal standard across all countries.

Aktualnye Agrosistemy: Considering Russian weather conditions, are high-yielding wheat varieties always necessary? Is there a demand for seeds of not so high-yielding varieties, yet with improved winter- and drought tolerance? Because, at the end of the day, the farmer wants to recover his expenses even in an unfavourable season, doesn’t he?

Drews: We recommend choosing seeds depending on the established crop rotation and previous crops. If black fallow is present in the rotation, then we offer high-yield varieties; in case of non-fallow forecrops and a risk of unfavourable weather conditions, we suggest better-adapted varieties capable of adjusting to weather anomalies. There is, for example, Skipetr variety which we highly recommend to farmers in unfavourable seasons when the seeding is late. It survives winter quite well, yet tillers only in spring.

Aktualnye Agrosistemy: Are the seeds on offer capable of producing high yields in virtually any regions of Russia? Or are there restrictions?

There is a State Register in Russia, which lists area-specific varieties. We register varieties for regions 3 and 5, since they require identical winter hardiness; the requirements for region 7 are different somewhat, but I must admit that our varieties show themselves to advantage in the most extreme conditions. Having said that, maintaining a reasonable balance is also important: even here in the south, in Rostov oblast, freezing temperatures below 30° Celsius occur, and not a hint of snow in the field, for this reason the seeds of Southern breeding are not an option. Similarly, we cannot offer our customers varieties of foreign origin with low winter hardiness — even though they exceed the local ones in productivity — in such cases.

Aktualnye Agrosistemy: How long do you test your varieties? Is it sufficient to ensure quality of the seeds offered by your company?

Drews: We do not submit varieties of foreign genetics for state trial at once. We conduct preliminary trials ourselves. Only after 2 years — provided that a variety has shown itself to advantage — we submit it for state trials which take up another 3 years. That means that a total of 5 years passes before the seeds are finally launched onto the market. Virtually all traits of a variety, its adaptability included, come to light over this time.

Aktualnye Agrosistemy: How is the farmer-company interaction organised, what is the role of agronomic support?

Drews: The farmer needs to see the benefits of a given variety in action. We regard the regular field days arranged by the company and which agricultural producers are encouraged to attend as one of the most important links in the company-farmer interaction system. Representatives of farms see variety-specific characteristics in demo trials, followed up by invitation of the managers to our core seed enterprise in Kursk oblast where they have an opportunity to see the yield and quality of the varieties in real conditions and on extensive areas, rather than in trial plots. Having ascertained the advantages of the varieties on offer, farmers are ready to make a deal.

Another way of customer interaction is provision of sampling lots. We offer sample seeds to growers in most diverse regions so that they can see the positive traits of the varieties for themselves. Later, every sales manager collects reviews from growers. It is an integral part of the analysis, which we carry out for each variety, for each seed lot sold.

Aktualnye Agrosistemy: How do your varieties fare in resisting diseases affecting cereal crops?

Drews: Years of practice have shown that our varieties are resistant to diseases widespread in many regions of the country, but the challenge is not that: new strains of pests and diseases — of which we know very little or nothing at all - appear in the Russian fields every year. This year, for instance, aphids have emerged in sunflower in Voronezh oblast. What makes controlling them more complicated is that the aphids are active under the lower leaves, and only very skillful insecticide application can deliver. Last year, a number of farms in Lipetsk and Moscow oblasts underestimated the threat from emergence of cabbage flies in spring rape.

Initially, no one paid due regard or fought the pest, and subsequently the farms encountered some issues. In this respect, one comes across surprises every year. For example, a viral disease affecting peas appeared in Germany for the first time last year. There was nothing like it before. We don’t have it in Russia so far, but a number of enterprises have reported atypical yellowing. The transmitters of viral diseases are aphids and leafhoppers, so as soon as they get into view, one has to go to great lengths to control them, so as to stave off the consequences in the form of reduced or lost harvest. The aphid itself poses no threat, it is the virus that it distributes that is harmful. Quite often growers fail to appreciate the seriousness of the issue — no big deal if the leaves of some plants have shrunk – but it means that the infection has already got inside the plant and will for sure affect the quantity and quality of the crop.

Aktualnye Agrosistemy: Your company has earned a reputation as a supplier of of forage seeds. Seeds of what crops do you currently offer in this segment? What varieties and hybrids are underway?

Drews: Most of forages procured by any enterprise engaged in livestock production come from maize, since it is the top yielding crop with a high nutritional value. Currently, a maize hybridization project is underway in Kursk oblast, the first product of which is a hybrid of Austrian breeding called Grizzly. In May of this year, when recurrent frost with quite low temperatures occurred, the hybrid showed its worth, having exhibited high tolerance to such stress factor as a dramatic drop in temperature. This season, we sold only 1,000 seed units, but we intend to optimally adapt our maize hybrids to adverse conditions of Russian regions in the future.

Our next priority is alfalfa. Having carried out a lot of trials of the crop, we have become convinced, that the varieties of Southern genotype (of Italian origin) can’t handle spring frost spells, whereas the Canadian varieties fare in stressful weather conditions better, because the climate is suitable, so we are planning to strengthen our cooperation with Canadian research institutes.

Another promising line of activity is soybean production. Previously, we only had varieties of Canadian breeding to offer, now we want to extend the range of soybean varieties with those of Serbian breeding.

Soybeans sell for 25 rubles per kilo currently, which makes them profitable to grow. By way of a simple calculation we get that in the regions where soybean yield reaches 2.5-3 t/ha, receipts from sales amount to 75 thousand rubles/ha. Russian soybean varieties have an edge over the imported ones: being non-GMO, they will stay in high demand in the future.

Yet there are a few challenges which we as seed growers face in the process of state trials, and we are not alone here. According to the European methods, for example, seeds on varieties on trial need to be treated with one treating agent thus ensuring similar conditions for all varieties. The requirement for Russia is different: seeds must not be treated. But that is outdated! Are we carrying out a comparison of varieties or an ecological study? Every farm uses treaters today. First, let the state committee decide which of the treating agents is necessary, but its use in the process of seed trials must be obligatory. This will ensure equal conditions for all the varieties being tested. Secondly, we — like many other seed companies - have reached a conclusion that insecticide treatments are necessary when it comes to growing cereals. For example, the gout fly causes colossal damage in our climatic area, so we apply an insecticide along with a treater, but also before planting to protect the crop from diseases and pests.

There is another issue: two levels of intensification are not provided for in the state variety trials. Abroad, for example, trials take place in versions, when the crops are grown using a high intensification level (increased fertiliser application rates and at least 2 fungicide treatments) and a low intensification level (low fertilizer application rates and 1 fungicide treatment or none at all). Following the intensive and extensive versions, they harvest, for instance, 9.0 t/ha and 7.5 t/ha of wheat, respectively. And enterprises have a choice: either to invest more and get higher yields, or, to take a more economical route, due to shortages of funds, and choose an extensive production technique. Who do we carry out trials for? For science purposes, for testing integrity, or for the grower? Of course, for the grower, so let’s cater above all to his needs, it will be fair that way. I believe trials need to be updated to fit modern requirements.

Interview by Vladimir LVOV