Eric Watson

Passion for Higher Yields Leads to World Record Crop

The Canterbury Plains nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Southern Alps of New Zealand’s South Island have become a special place in folklore. Not only were the surrounds used as film locations for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the Plains have now produced two world record crop yields – one for barley two years ago and as of February 2017, the Guinness world record for the greatest wheat yield.

So, what’s the secret? How do farmers living in such spectacular landscapes continually produce yields that are out of this world?

Bayer talks to Ashburton farmer Eric Watson who, along with wife Maxine, holds the new world record for the greatest wheat yield - a staggering 16.791 tonnes/ha.

Congratulations Eric on achieving a new world record for wheat. The most obvious question is how did you do it, what’s the secret?

Thank you, it’s certainly a great feeling achieving the world record. I don’t think there was any secret, it was just getting the crop in on time, it was a good paddock, the previous crop had been red beet, before that had been ryegrass – a seed production crop. It wasn’t an exceptionally fertile paddock. The season had something to do with it. We got it in on time, there were very good sowing conditions in the autumn, it was quite dry so the crop went into the ground in very good condition. The winter was probably a bit mild; the growth of the crop over winter was probably too much, but we had a very cold spring which I think helped the development of the crop as well. And it was never that hot, we didn’t get too much hot weather over the grain-fill period. We didn’t get any hot dry north-west winds – so I think that certainly helped as well.

Ashburton farmer Eric Watson and his wife Maxine
Ashburton farmer Eric Watson and his wife Maxine
Ashburton farmer Eric Watson and his wife Maxine broke the world record in wheat yield.

Clearly growing conditions were an important factor, but you must have had some inkling that you could get a world record. What made you decide to go for it?

I’ve been passionate about growing high yields for many years now. It’s about learning as you go along, trying different things and always looking to improve. About two years ago a South Canterbury farmer, Warren Darling, got the world record for barley. Bayer was heavily involved in achieving that record and it wasn’t long afterwards that our local Bayer rep David Weith said to me, “Eric, you grow high yielding wheat – you should go for the world record.” I thought about it for about a year, before telling David, yes, let’s go for it. I suppose I needed a shove in the right direction – David certainly made me realise that I could do it. We treated this crop the same way we treated any other crop. That is, paying close attention to it right from the start, ensuring we had the right amount of water and nitrogen, and with the help of Bayer developing an effective crop protection programme. The rest was up to Mother Nature.

What is the process like for applying for a world record? Presumably there are checks in place to ensure the harvest is genuine?

To be honest, there are many hoops to jump through when applying for a Guinness World record. We had four independent witnesses, including two Justices of the Peace, checking everything; it all had to be surveyed, surveyed before we drilled and the surveyor was there at harvest to re-survey the area to make sure the exact area was right. There also had to be an auditor to sample every load and take the weighbridge recording of every load and the truck weight recorded with every load and take a moisture check of every load and a screenings test of every load. The whole process had to be filmed on camera and we only found out about the cameras three or four days before we were due to harvest. We made video recordings of every step of the harvest – in the field, on the combine, on the weighbridge, in the truck and trailer and in the tractor. A drone was also recording from the sky. If we hadn’t had those cameras in the field, Guinness wouldn’t have allowed the record.

How important was collaboration in achieving the world record?

You can’t grow a world record crop alone. I can honestly say I don’t think we would have got there without the support of Bayer and its products. I was frequently on the phone to our Bayer rep David Weith discussing all aspects of the crop and the crop protection programme. We used Bayer seed treatment products, herbicides and fungicides.

Yara Fertilisers New Zealand also played an important part. They provided excellent advice on the overall crop nutrition and fertiliser inputs such as nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, sulphur and magnesium. Their regular herbage testing was important as it allowed us to determine the best time to add foliar trace elements to the crop.

I couldn’t have done it without Bayer and Yara – they have been tremendous and I owe a big thanks to them both.

Do you invest in research and development when it comes to growing high-yielding crops?

I’ve always been keen on keeping up with new trends and developments. Actually we were the first in the region to use variable rate irrigation. Using wireless GPS technology, it allows us to use electromagnetic mapping to recognise the soil being irrigated and vary application rates according to the soil’s needs. This means crops get the exact quantity of moisture required and no water is wasted. We save about 100,000 m³ of water annually.

I also like to know what’s going on in the soil. We always test soil nitrogen levels in early spring allowing us to know exactly how much we need to apply, if at all.

Trials are important too. I’m a keen supporter of trials and research and regularly set land aside for trial work by organisations such as the Foundation for Arable Research.

Machinery plays a major role, so I’m following new developments in this area. The harvest window is so short, so you need to invest in big machinery to get the job done.

Apart from wheat, what other crops do you grow on your farm?

We grow a variety of crops – triticale, barley, grasses for seed such as fescue and ryegrass, chicory, plantain, radish, spinach, red beet, pak choi and corn salad for seed. It’s our passion and something we love doing.

Any other potential new world records among the crops you grow?

The wheat world record was an exceptional yield, but I could always do better and that’s my aim. There are some things I saw when I was out there on the combine and I thought, yes, I could do this a whole lot better. Having said that, the autumn planting season has been affected by wet weather, which is sure to impact yields. Once again, we are at the mercy of Mother Nature. The truth is, we’ll just have to wait and see.

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