An arable farm in a livestock-dominated county brings its own challenges and opportunities. Chloe Palmer finds out more.
When Richard Reeves came to Tattondale Farm in Cheshire in 1981, Manchester Airport was a moderately-sized regional airport and the M56 motorway had only just fully opened. He has witnessed many changes since taking on the tenancy, but the principles guiding his farming operations have remained largely constant.
After graduating from Leeds University, Mr Reeves’ career started at a farm in North Wales, then progressed to a farm manager’s role with ICI followed by a three-and-a-half-year stint on a Duke of Westminster arable farm before securing the tenancy at Tattondale Farm. The farm he took on was a far cry from the productive acres he farms today.
He says: “We ran a bed and breakfast to start with because the farm was very poor and the income kept us going. We initially farmed just 190 hectares as a County Council tenant but since then we have managed to rent an additional 134ha privately as neighbouring farmers have retired.”
Tattondale Farm cannot boast the scale of its arable counterparts in the East but it has the advantage of being in close proximity to large markets for cereals. Most of Mr Reeves’ crops are sold to an end user located within 30 miles of the farm.
“Our winter wheat all goes to Cargill in Manchester where it is milled to produce starch and sweeteners for the food industry. Our oats are mainly sold to Mornflake at Crewe but we do sell some for seed and our oilseed rape is sent to Liverpool to blend for biodiesel and for cooking oils,” Mr Reeves says.
The choice of crops within the rotation at Tattondale is influenced by the availability of a suitable market as the range of light loam to clay loam soils and the warm, wet climate will grow most winter-sown cereals.
“Our rotation is generally winter wheat, barley, oats and oilseed rape. If it is wet and we are unable to drill everything in autumn, we will put in some spring beans or oats.
“We are a registered rainfall assessor and the recorded rainfall shows our average is 875mm but we will often see 1,125mm in a wet year but just 600mm in a drought year.
“We certainly do not get many drying days here in winter and early spring which makes spring cropping less attractive,” Mr Reeves adds.
He has chosen to stick with the plough and believes this is just one of the reasons why the farm does not have a black-grass problem:
“We use a traditional plough and power harrow combination drill across the whole farm and this helps with weed control. We rent some land out for potato growing and we have to plough afterwards so on a farm this size, it would not work to have two different cultivation systems.
Being surrounded by dairy and beef farms means Mr Reeves ‘never touches the straw’ as it is all baled and collected by local livestock farmers. He has boosted soil organic matter in the past by using sewage sludge.
“We were one of the first farms to take it but we have stopped using it now because our phosphate indices were becoming very high and we found United Utilities were bringing it on when it was wet so it was damaging our soil structure.
“Historically, the sludge was not analysed properly but now it is applied more scientifically, so we may look to take some more in the future.”
Mr Reeves acknowledges he uses much less nitrogen now than he did 20 years ago, but instead is applying far more sulphur as it is no longer supplied from the atmosphere via acid rain.
Like most farmers, he is concerned about the loss of agrochemicals and as a former chairman of the NFU’s north west crops board, he has been at the front line of discussions regarding the impact of the removal of products.
“We are lucky because we do not have a problem with flea beetle because there is less oilseed rape grown around here but I worry that in the future, when we lose seed dressings, we will need to spray more,” he says.
Explaining these challenges to a non-farming audience is something Mr Reeves does enthusiastically by visiting groups of environmental science students at Lancaster and Manchester universities and inviting them to his farm.
“As a farmer I find it more rewarding speaking to people who come from a non-farming background. They will be going into different jobs perhaps as planners, or working for Defra or as supermarket buyers so if they go onto a farm and speak to farmers, I hope it gives them a better understanding of what is happening here."
One aspect of the farm where Mr Reeves has dramatically changed his approach is managing marginal land.
“When I started farming we used to crop every corner of the farm but now we realise that many of these areas are uneconomic to farm. So we are now in the Countryside Stewardship Mid Tier scheme and we have included margins and other options which work really well on this farm.”
Another change in cropping came about as a result of this year’s drought and the impact it has had on dairy farmers across the county.
“I was approached by a dairy farmer who asked if I would be prepared to sow a field down to grass to provide him with additional forage. We have a field where the soil is very light, sandy loam and it was ready for a break crop so we seeded it with Westerwolds rye-grass after harvest and he mowed it on November 12.
“There are dairy farmers round here looking for more forage so it may be a way of taking the pressure off a little and putting more organic matter back in to the ground in the future.”
Now in his early 70s, Mr Reeves shows no signs of wishing to retire, even though he recognises farming in his part of the world will become more challenging as the urban sprawl continues to creep nearer:
“In this area we are becoming squeezed by the airport, housing and possibly HS2. But I love putting the work and in spring, walking the crops and looking at the environmental work we are doing. I get far more pleasure from this than I would from playing a round of golf.”