Primed with his experience as a Monitor Farm host, Warwickshire based farm manager Rob Fox is now taking an even more detailed look at ways to improve efficiency as he becomes AHDB’s latest Strategic Farm host.
Refining soil health measurements, managing black-grass more economically and making more use of technology – providing it is cost effective – are key objectives of AHDB’s Strategic Farm West.
Recently launched, the 400ha (1,000-acre) all arable host farm, Squab Hall, on the outskirts of Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, a former AHDB Monitor Farm, is managed by Rob Fox. Cropping is winter wheat, winter oilseed rape, spring barley and spring beans.
Since hosting a Monitor Farm, Mr Fox says one of the biggest things he has changed is how he markets grain. “We take more advice on global factors from ODA. Since we joined them it has made a big difference to how and when we sell. I’m confident we’re selling £4-5 a tonne above the average. Last year we sold forward; this year we’ve sold nothing forward.”
If desired, all grain can be stored for a year and a small proportion for more than that when needed.
One of the main points of interest for Mr Fox from the Monitor Farm project was soil health, and this is something he will focus on in much more detail as a strategic farmer. Soil type varies from medium clay loam to heavy Warwickshire clay.
Mr Fox says: “We have looked at soils a lot and I’m contented our soils are not in too bad a condition. We are looking at reducing cultivation depth a bit but heavy soils do need moving. Scratch and drill doesn’t get the water through. We need 4-6in depth to get the water to drain through.
“We are treating headlands a bit differently, working them a bit deeper than the rest or a second pass with the Sumo before drilling. We are trying to learn so we are not doing more cultivation than we need to in the better parts of the field.”
Soil will again be a key focus in the six-year Strategic Farm West programme. “With the Health and Harmony Bill there will be big changes afoot. We will need to demonstrate more we are looking after soils – keeping an eye on soil health and need to find the best way to evaluate what is a good soil.”
ADHB knowledge transfer manager Dr Emily Smith says an AHDB-sponsored project, the Soil Biology and Soil Health Partnership, is developing a soil health score card which will be tested out at the Strategic Farm West.
Another key challenge for Mr Fox is black-grass. Eight years ago he began to include spring barley as part of the rotation, which already included spring beans, to help tackle black-grass. The aim is to grow spring barley for malting, however, it has been a struggle meeting N specifications in the past. “We are trying a different variety, Explorer for Budweiser, they like a higher N.”
All fields have black-grass to varying degrees, says Mr Fox. “We want to look at different ways of managing it economically. “We need to learn how to manage black-grass levels better through rotation, technology and more targeted-applications of herbicide. I think that’s where technology will help us, to try and manage the smaller areas where we have got bad black-grass.”
Some insights into this could come from using drones and satellite imagery which is planned for 11 fields covering more than 160ha (395 acres), reflecting a range of crops and soil types across the farm and rotation, says Dr Smith.
Mr Fox adds: “We’ll assess black-grass mapping, crop health and anything else we can glean from these images.”
A user of variable seed rate and N technology, Mr Fox has been careful to cost it. “It is not cheap kit and you need to get your money back. It is weather dependent and some years you will not get your money back. We have seen more even establishment with variable seed rates and with higher spot rates from variable N - those areas of the field that can perform well are performing better, lifting the average.”
He is keen to explore the potential of technology further in the future, as long as it pays its way. “I like the idea of looking at various sensors for spraying, biomass maps from the Isaria [crop sensor] – spot rate weed control.”
Looking ahead to Brexit, Mr Fox says he is trying to make the arable business more streamlined without sacrificing bottom line. “We are high input/high output and with wheat prices where they are we only need a fractional increase in yield to have a big effect on bottom line.”
Over the last five years, joint ventures with three other farms in the area have been formed which is helping to spread machinery costs and labour requirements over a larger area. Apart from this, all four businesses run completely separately. “We are not a contracting business or LLP. Between the four farms we have all the kit we need. All the farms still do their own buying and selling but we would not rule out moving towards more joined up buying and selling.”
Mr Fox manages the labour across the farms with him and one staff member employed on the arable enterprise at Squab Hall and additional staff taken on for harvest.
So far he says the arrangement has worked well, with the farmers meeting up three times a year to discuss any issues. “There is a good spread of soils between us with some naturally earlier to harvest than others.”
During wheat harvest, the aim is to spend no more than two consecutive days on any one farm. “As long as the combine is working at full capacity somewhere everyone is benefiting. So far, no-one has fallen out over drying costs.”
Mr Fox grows all Group 4 feed wheats. “I am looking for high yielding varieties, not necessarily the cleanest, that perform well on our farm. We still grow Santiago and grew Oakley long after people were saying dump it. Yellow rust is easily controlled.”
Oilseed rape is 50 per cent conventional and 50 per cent hybrid varieties and again yield is high on the agenda, but ease of combining is also important, says Mr Fox. “If there is a lot of thick stem harvesting can be an issue.”
A moist seedbed is key to getting it up and away, he says. “If it hasn’t chitted in a week, you know it will be a steady fight against everything trying to kill it. It is often advantageous to hold off until there is rain in the forecast or sow after some rain.”
Five-year average yields are 9.5t/ha for wheat, oilseed rape nearly 4t/ha, spring barley nearly 7t/ha and spring beans nearly 4t/ha, he says.
As well as maximising yields, designing a financially viable Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) that delivers true benefits for the environment and runs alongside the commercial arable unit is also a goal for Mr Fox. “We cut out of the HLS agreement and are putting together a CCS agreement that will hopefully start in January. We are going to see one of the ASSIST farms which could influence how we build our CSS application.”
AHDB Strategic Farm West (six years)
Squab Hall, near Leamington Spa, Warwickshire.
Owned by the Evans family
400ha (1,000 acres) plus joint ventures with four other farmers totalling 1050ha (2,600 acres)
Cropping, Squab Hall: 50 per cent winter wheat, 25 per cent oilseed rape, 25 per cent spring barley, 25 per cent beans and other crops
Soil type: varies from medium clay loam to heavy Warwickshire clay.