With Brexit looming, the next few years present considerable challenges for the UK’s arable farmers. In this new series we focus on how some of the nation’s top growers are rising to meet those challenges, and hope to inspire you to continue making the small improvements that can reduce your cost of production. Olivia Cooper reports.
Neal Sanderson, Head of Marketing
In uncertain times, there is perhaps one certainty: post-Brexit most growers will eventually receive less financial support from government, and what remains is increasingly likely to be delivered for environmental goods. Over the past 10 years, two-thirds of the gross margin from UK cereal production has been derived from support payments.
To remain viable, many farm businesses are going to have to look again at their costs of production, and aim to reduce them either by increasing marketable yields or by reducing costs, or a combination of both. For many there is unlikely to be a quick fix, rather a number of small incremental gains made from doing the little things just that bit better. At Bayer, we have prod- ucts, advice and services that can play a role in making those small changes for the better, and that’s why we are delighted to sponsor this series of articles focusing on how top growers already make the difference to their cost of production.
Farm manager at R.S Cockerill Farms, Dunnington, York
FARM FACTS: 567 hectares, of which about 35% is owned – comprising potatoes, feed wheat, feed barley, malting barley, sugar beet, oilseed rape, carrots and spring oats.
Major potato business in the North East, R.S. Cockerill produces 202ha of potatoes at its home farm, about 75% of which go to Walkers Pepsico for processing, with the rest packed for discount retailers and other processors. In a bid to improve productivity the farm has been involved in trial work with Walkers Pepsico for more than 20 years.
“Potato cyst nematode is a focal point – we’re constantly reviewing what we’re doing, with a lack of chemicals to fight it,” says farm manager Mr Savage. The sandy land is nutritionally challenging, with wet-lying ground an issue in the winter and drought being the summer problem. Fortunately, the farm can irrigate about 75% of its land, but blight is the biggest issue it faces, with new strains threatening all the time.
“We grow potatoes one in six crops in the rotation, but whether we have enough chemicals coming forward is questionable,” says Mr Savage. Relationships with third party buyers are very important, and one of the biggest threats is the availability of land on which to grow potatoes, says Mr Savage.
Farm manager at J.P. Clay, Fawley Court, Fawley, Herefordshire
FARM FACTS: 1,134 hectares, owned by the Clay family and comprising 405ha of grassland plus 729ha of arable in a rotation of winter wheat, oilseed rape, peas, spring beans, oats and winter barley. Calving 100 beef suckler cows and finishing youngstock.
Taking part as a host farm in the AHDB’s monitor farm programme proved to be a perfect opportunity for farm manager Mark Wood to embrace benchmarking and examine production costs at Fawley Court.
“In the first year we did a lot on variable cost comparison, but there was no real variation between the group, so we looked at fixed costs, which really challenged us,” he says. Mr Wood knew the farm was over-staffed, but unable to change that he focused on machinery costs instead. “We used to be quite rigid on changing machinery every five years, now we are more flexible.”
In 2016 his cost of production for wheat was £118/t – in 2017 it dropped to £104/t. One of the biggest agronomic challenges on the farm is its sandy loam soils, which have little resistance to problems or weather extremes. In a bid to increase organic matter, Mr Wood has ditched potatoes from the rotation, and is adding as much manure as possible, both from the beef herd and local horse trainers.
“Over four years the organic matter has increased from 1% to 1.5%, which is very pleasing.”
Owner at Chestnut Tree Farm, Kenninghall, Norfolk
FARM FACTS: 2,000 hectares of owned and contracted farmland, growing a rotation of sugar beet, winter wheat and maize on lighter land with oilseed rape, second wheats and spring beans on heavier soils.
Sugar beet used to be a top crop in East Anglia, but like many farmers Jimmy Gooderham has concerns over being a price taker in such a volatile market. While it is still a major crop on the farm, at 364ha, the Gooderham family have recently diversified into something a little more predictable: anaerobic digestion.
“That has changed the way we farm a bit,” he says. “We grow about three-quarters of our own maize and buy the rest in, alongside some chicken muck as feedstock. It’s difficult to invest when the price jumps round all over the place; with the AD plant the price is set for a number of years.”
That said, sugar beet is still an important part of the rotation, although it doesn’t come without agronomic difficulties. Challenges include drought and limited irrigation. “Wind blow is a major issue, so we’ve been experimenting with establishment techniques.”
Currently, we establish spring barley as a cover crop and drill sugar beet into it.
Owner at Fletchers Farm, Fordham, Colchester, Essex
FARM FACTS: A 62-hectare family farm with equestrian diversification and combinable crops. Plus 1,250ha across six contracted farms in a rotation of winter wheat, spring oats, spring barley, winter barley, environmental grassland and winter beans.
Being located in Essex, the neonicotinoid ban has had a major impact on Tom Bradshaw’s farming operations, leading him to cut oilseed rape from the rotation altogether. “We dropped it two years ago, and it paid off last year as only about 10% of the oilseed rape in Essex survived the drought and flea beetle damage,” he explains.
“This year it wasn’t so bad, but we just don’t want the risk.” Like many farms in the area, black-grass is another problem, with some rye-grass starting to creep in, too.
“The pressure is quite variable; on former livestock land it’s not bad but on heavy arable clay soil the black-grass pressure is high. He is using a lot of spring cropping, more targeted cultivations, direct drilling where possible and cultivating when required.
“Before that we tried ploughing but it didn’t work on the heavy clay, and it was very expensive. In the longer term, we need to look at drainage problems and get that sorted.” Mr Bradshaw is also NFU crops board chairman in East Anglia.
Published by our sister company Farmers Guardian. Follow their Brexit Hub for the latest information.