A dogged pursuit of yield drives A.J. Duncan Farms’ arable enterprise across the 2,430 hectares it crops over 24 farms near Turriff, Aberdeenshire.
The land varies from sandy loams to sandy clay loams.
There is also winter wheat, oilseed rape and smaller areas of winter oats and spring barley in the rotation, with all the wheat and feed barley channelled towards the egg production side of the business.
There are 450,000 free-range laying hens across 10 sites, making the farm one of Scotland’s leading producers.
Now there is a new goal for the business: the net zero egg.
Alistair McBain, the farm’s rearing and production development manager, has been tasked with tracing the carbon emissions across the farming enterprises and identifying where reductions can be made.
“About 80% of the carbon footprint on the poultry side comes from feed and 80% of that is down to the soya in the diet,” says Mr McBain.
“We can look to more sustainable sources of soya, but that only makes up 21% of the diet.
It may also deflect from what we can do to reduce emissions for our home-grown feed, and perhaps reduce dependence on bought-in soya.”
So, this brings the focus back to the arable side of the business.
Arable manager Sandy Norrie explains that it is an unashamedly high-input system, refined to achieve the results they’re looking for.
He says: “We tailor variety choice and inputs to the situation and task in hand, but don’t skimp and believe in using the latest technology in getting the crops to perform.”
Wheat varieties are ‘handpicked’ for high yielding, low protein performance.
“We’ve worked hard to adapt the rotation and bring in more wheat to replace bought-in feed,” says Mr Norrie.
“We’re getting on really well with soft Group 4 wheat KWS Colosseum that yielded over 11 tonnes/ha last year, while our five-year average yield is 9.8t/ha.
SY Insitor is another wheat that suits us well.
Analyses The feed cereals benefit from 5t/ha of chicken litter applied just before ploughing, with the sample analysis showing each tonne delivers 9.5kg of nitrogen, 8.5kg phosphorus, 8.5kg potassium and 4kg SO3.
“Where restrictions prevent us spreading, we’ll always apply 30kg/ha of P down the spout at drilling to get the crop going.
Traditionally we’ve used 0:24:24 to maintain indices, but recent soil analyses indicate a switch to 0:20:32 would suit us better,” Mr Norrie adds.
Two Agrifac 36-metre sprayers with 5,000-litre tanks are kept busy through spring with a ‘little and often’ liquid fertiliser policy, along with applying agrochemicals.
An NKS dressing of 19.8:0:9.8 + 5 SO3 is followed by usually two splits of N35 to bring total applied to the wheat of 180kg N/ha.
OSR forms the prime break crop with a ‘hard and fast’ rule not to grow the crop closer than one year in five to limit clubroot.
The OSR management follows the same high input strategy as the cereals, with variety carefully tailored around clubroot risk and hybrids favoured for their advanced traits.
This season the farm is also growing a 26ha crop of spring beans, which may present a new opportunity to increase the home-grown feed and reduce carbon emissions.
“It’s not a crop many people grow in this part of Scotland and I’m reserving judgement on its potential for us.
What we cannot afford to do in reducing our carbon footprint is to reduce overall production,” says Mr Norrie.
Potential And this is the balance that matters the most for the business.
Mr Norrie explains the cultivations system is very much plough-based and he feels this is the best way to manage the high-production potential of the soils.
A 6m Lemken powerharrow combination drill and Horsch Pronto give the farm the drilling flexibility it needs.
Monitoring reports show average soil organic matter (SOM) levels are rising, however, and currently stand at around 5%.
“We used to min-till much of the OSR with a He-Va five-leg subsoiler and Opico seeder box, but found the plough still brought the best results.
This year we’re planning a min-till trial of 200ha of wheat.
But sterile brome can be a problem for us, that min-till could make worse.
With the plough-based system costing us £70/ha, there’s no cost benefit from switching out of it but there could be a lot to lose,” he says.
The farm also has an experimental 40ha of summer cover crops and is exploring their potential.
“These are on land with old tile drains and I’m hoping the roots may act as a green drainage system, as well as offer carbon savings,” says Mr Norrie.
Reducing emissions isn’t all down to the arable side, however, with around 30 wind turbines framing the landscape.
Mr McBain says: “The farm has a sister company, Muirden Energy, with around 40% of our energy now coming from renewable sources.
This includes 50kW solar arrays at each of the poultry sites and six biomass boilers, with a smaller one heating the farm office.”
And the business has one other natural capital asset with carbon sequestration potential.
Garty Estate, Caithness, is an upland holding of 1,400ha, uncropped but home to around 900 North Country Cheviot breeding ewes.
Restoration “Within the estate there’s 80ha of peat and we’re currently discussing a peatland restoration scheme and looking at planting trees on less productive areas across our farms,” says Mr McBain.
“Despite all we’re doing on the renewable energy side it will still be a challenge for us to achieve the net zero egg.
“But we’re confident we can and want to reduce emissions on the production side before we look to offset them elsewhere.”