Harvest Champion

Eric Watson continues New Zealand’s championship pedigree with his record setting wheat harvest

By world standards, the size of New Zealand’s arable industry is downright tiny. According to the Institute of Agriculture and Environment at New Zealand’s Massey University, a mere 145,000 hectares (358,000 acres) of wheat, barley and oats was grown in 2012, roughly one tenth the area allocated to wheat production in North Dakota each year. So for New Zealand to hold not one, but two, Guinness World Records in grain farming is beyond remarkable.

Performance Magazine chronicled the first of these records back in the fall of 2015 (For The Record, Issue 19) which was set by Canterbury area farmer Warren Darling for barley production. Now another Canterbury farmer, Eric Watson, holds the World Record for wheat yield thanks to his monster harvest of 16.791 tonnes per hectare (249.68 bu/acre), breaking the previous record set by a UK farmer the previous northern hemisphere harvest. This was Watson’s second attempt at the record, who says that wheat harvests of 14 or 15 tonne a hectare are not uncommon in his area,
a few tonnes higher than the 12 tonne are the norm for irrigated wheat in New Zealand.

“Harvests like that are what we aspire to do, or even higher,” said Eric Watson who manages his farm with wife Maxine. “We’re always trying to get the highest yields possible.”

Watson says that, while Darling’s record barley harvest was part of his inspiration to try for the wheat record, what really gave him the push to make the attempt was encouragement from David Weith, a Regional Sales Manager with Bayer Crop Science.

“David was the guy who sort of looked after it all and helped me a lot. He said if somebody could do it, it would be me.”

Watson says that having people like Weith alongside him was essential, for a lot of preparation and planning goes into making a Guinness World Record attempt.

“First, the field has to be surveyed by a registered surveyor so that you are harvesting exactly the right area. You also have to be careful with your inputs; in the Guinness rules you can’t use anything over the label recommendations for your country. You can’t use excessive herbicides, fungicides or growth regulators on your field. As well, the crop has to be regularly monitored
and checked off by an agronomist whose qualifications are recognized by Guinness.”

For the attempt Watson used Oakley, an autumn-sown wheat variety developed in Britain and marketed in New Zealand by Carrfield Grain and Seed; the same company behind the variety used in Warren Darling’s record. It was planted in April of 2016 just before the start of the southern hemisphere’s winter.

“We had a pretty good autumn. It was dry, mild and very good sowing conditions, some of the best we had had for years. The winter was very kind too. In fact it was too good; the crop was
a week or two too far advanced coming out of the winter, going into the spring.”

Fortunately, cold weather in October, November and early December slowed things down, so that the crop evened out and it became a fairly normal growing season for us, with adequate measures of rainfall and sun to support the record attempt. Watson says that there was nothing exceptional about the season, and everything unfolded “pretty much as expected.”

“The crop was very well looked after, but then most of our crops are. Paul Johnston, Arable Specialist with Yara Fertilisers undertook leaf analysis testing every fortnight through the growing season, just to make sure that it wasn’t short of anything. When needed, we applied trace elements to the crop and I think that certainly helped keep the crop very healthy.”

“We’re always trying to get the highest yields possible.”

A week before harvest in mid February, Watson took a test cut out of the field and the results gave him hope that the record was within reach.

“My yield monitor on the combine was showing slightly less than I thought the crop was doing. It was reading about 2% lower, but it gave us a good idea of where we were at.”

When harvest day finally arrived on February 17, 2017, Watson’s farm became a hive of activity. “We had a great team of about 20 professionals and volunteers around us on the day. There were two justices of the peace to verify everything, a group of helpers from Bayer and two independent witnesses, one of whom was Warren Darling who had also helped with advice during the season. There was also a certified auditor from SGS, a big Swiss auditing company, to check the weighbridge and do all of the sampling. Finally, to provide an unbroken record of the attempt, we had to video the whole process. There was a camera in the field and a camera at the weighbridge, both manned during the whole harvest operation. There were also cameras in the harvester and in each of the chaser bin vehicles. There certainly were a lot of people here.”

After the harvest a team from Bayer helped to compile a comprehensive record to be submitted to Guinness of everything that was done to manage the crop. Completion of the paperwork, plus editing of the footage from the two cameras took about four to five weeks to complete but, once submitted it only took three days for Guinness to confirm that Watson had indeed broken the record.

Understandably proud of the achievement, Watson says that the record is not only a testament to New Zealand’s growing conditions, but also to the quality of people in the country’s Ag Industry.

“It’s a very good feeling to get the world record, but the record is also very important for our arable industry as it’s an under recognized industry in New Zealand. It may be very small but it’s very diverse and dynamic. We produce very good quality out of here, and we can grow a lot of products.”

And at the heart of that industry are farmers just like Watson who admits that he is always striving to do more and test the limits of what’s possible.

“I guess you could say I’m a pretty driven sort of a guy, a bit impatient. I always like to succeed at whatever I am doing.”

Watson says that his drive for excellence extends to all aspects of his farming operation, including finding the right machines to help him be profitable.

“I make sure to choose good equipment and look around for what’s available. To me the MacDon FlexDraper is a very good piece of kit (equipment). It performed very well in that record breaking crop. It is a great front.”

Watson uses his FlexDraper (mounted on a Case IH 9230 tracked combine) to harvest his wheat, barley, triticale and, sometimes, fava beans on his 490 hectares (1,211 acres) farm. He also grows a wide variety of grass and vegetable seeds including ryegrass, tall and fine fescue, plantain, chicory, spinach, radish, red beet, and all of his seed crops are swathed by Donald Love, a local contractor who should be familiar to readers of Performance Magazine (Love at First Sight, Spring 2011, Issue 10).

Apart from the FlexDraper’s ability to handle World Record wheat harvests, Watson says that he appreciates the way the header helps him recover lodged crops, a crop condition he works hard to avoid if possible.

“Keeping the crop standing, especially with cereals, is paramount. You just cannot afford to lodge a crop. It doesn’t yield and to me, yield is king as far as profitability goes. 

“Now we have no problem harvesting downed crop with the FlexDraper.”

To prevent lodging we use plant growth regulators, which is very much standard practice in our area, to keep the straw strong and shorten the crop. That helps keep the crop standing.”

Still, Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate and Watson is every now and then faced with the challenge of picking up a downed crop.

“Sometimes we couldn’t harvest flat barley with our old auger front. To harvest it we would have to get a windrower to run in front of the combine, but now we have no problem harvesting downed crop with the FlexDraper.”

Looking forward, Watson believes that his FlexDraper may be challenged by even larger wheat crops in the future, as he isn’t about to rest on his laurels.

“If the record is broken I would probably go for it again. Given the right conditions, 17.5 tonnes a hectare is probably achievable. Yeah, perhaps I am a bit competitive, although I don’t really care what someone else’s crop is yielding. I’m more competitive against myself than anything. You can always do better; that’s the way I farm.”