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Slug control and the changing role of the agronomist

Nigel Francis, team manager at Agrii, has had a 34-year long career specialising in providing technical advice on over 2,000 hectares. In total, he manages a team of 18 agronomists across one of the largest geographical areas in the business’ portfolio.

Nigel Francis, team manager at Agrii, has had a 34-year long career specialising in providing technical advice on over 2,000 hectares. In total, he manages a team of 18 agronomists across one of the largest geographical areas in the business’ portfolio.

Having been an early advocate of metaldehyde stewardship, since its inception, Mr Francis reflects on the evolving role of agronomy in slug control, and what practical tools are still relevant to growers as we head into the slug season.

“I directly advise growers in parts of Staffordshire and Derbyshire, but the team I manage covers from Northamptonshire, up to Lancashire and across to north Wales.

“Slugs are a major issue for some of our growers, and not just where they have OSR in the rotation, but also in situations where cultivation techniques are changing, such as to direct drilling or min-till.

“We’re often advising on combinable crops and OSR, on medium to heavy soils, and therefore much of the advice we give at this time of year, is focused on managing slug control so it doesn’t impact establishment.

“Fundamentally, growers are required to produce high quality crops to feed a growing population, and in order to do this sustainably, there needs to be harmony with the wider environment, particularly when it comes to crop protection.

“As a result, stewardship forms an integral part of the advice we give, not only in protecting the environment, but also to retain the vital active ingredients available for slug control, for seasons to come.

“Growers are now much more aware of best practice guidance, through the work of industry initiatives such as the Metaldehyde Stewardship Group (MSG). They are keen to do their part, and it’s this demand that has meant that agronomists have had to adapt their role to incorporate more stewardship lead advice into their recommendations.”

Stewardship

“I personally got involved in stewardship 15 years ago when the Voluntary Initiative project was launched.

“I was put forward as the lead agronomist for an initiative to improve water quality at source. This involved meetings with the NFU, the Environment Agency and the local water company (South Staffs Water), where we aimed to get growers involved directly.

“The issue we had then was that there was a small number of farmers who would regularly get involved, but wider engagement was difficult to attain. We decided that, if the farmers wouldn’t come to us, we had to start thinking of ways to get the message out to them.”

The one person most farmers turn to for advice is their agronomist, who is often seen as a trusted partner and in some cases part of the decision-making unit on the farm, explains Mr Francis.

“It was with this knowledge, that we decided to bring all agronomists together from multiple companies to agree a plan of action for direct farmer communications. At the time, this was a somewhat innovative idea, but resulted in the foundations of the stewardship as it exists today.”

Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

The success of this model has resulted in a step-change for agronomists, explains Mr Francis.

“Historically, our role has been more focused on practical advice, but growers are asking more and more questions about the environment, and expect their agronomist to have the answers.

“For example, IPM, which forms an integral part of the MSG guidelines for this year, is a major and fundamental part of the advice agronomists give.

“As a BASIS examiner, I always stress the importance of IPM as the first port of call from day one for slug control. Being aware of the effect of cultivation techniques, and how to minimise slug movements, is just part of the range of tools we use, with pesticides being the very last tool in the armoury.

“Educating farmers regarding the benefits of alternative slug control products, such as ferric phosphate, also forms an important part of my role.

“It’s taken some years to get farmers to accept the efficacy of ferric phosphate, simply because they don’t see dead slugs on the surface, as you would with metaldehyde. However, as more and more growers use it, and understand that it’s just as effective, it has formed part of a wider holistic approach to pest control.

“The new 10m buffer zone guideline for metaldehyde, is an example of where alternative slug control products, such as ferric phosphate, come in to their own.

“Due to the environmental profile and flexibility of the product, ferric phosphate can be used on these field boundaries. In some cases, in irregular fields, there may be scenarios where growers will start with ferric phosphate from day one.

“It’s all about educating them as to what will work best on their individual farm, alongside a robust IPM approach to ensure good slug control.”

The future

“Agronomists do have a ‘day job’, which is to advise on crop health and to provide their technical knowledge and advice on pesticides, precision agronomy and technology. However, a lack of staffing on-farm, and a greater demand on the farmer to produce crops sustainably, has resulted in more reliance on the agronomist.

“Environmental stewardship can bring benefits to both farmers and wildlife, and supports everything we do, and I feel agronomists provide the key link between industry and the practicalities of farming.

“The most important thing going forward is to keep stewardship simple and practical at an on-farm level, and to reiterate to farmers that good farming practices and basic principles of integrated farming are already one giant step towards good product stewardship.

“It’s our job to ensure that the industry continues to see how stewardship is positively contributing to the protection of the environment while ensuring a future for certain actives, such as metaldehyde. And, it’s important that we, alongside our stakeholders, continue to promote this for seasons to come.”