Taking areas out of production can be a challenging leap for any farmer but, when James Price scrutinised the productivity of his farm on a field-by-field basis, he saw that by being more attentive to productive areas, he could maximise efficiency and reduce costs.
“The model we are trying to follow is not farming as much land as you can, it is farming the land you have to the best of its ability,” says farmer James Price.
Across 650 hectares of Cotswold brash at Perdiswell Farm in Woodstock, some areas perform significantly better than others and, using farm management software, Mr Price can review yield data from the last five years and define the average yield in each area.
“You can then immediately start to see which parts of the field are producing your average and which will yield 10 per cent more or less.”
Going against the standard model of applying increased inputs to low productivity areas, Mr Price says the data helps him make significant savings on, for example, crop nutrition, rather than spending the same amount on inputs in an area which gives lower returns.
Any areas of a field that are 20 per cent less productive may be taken out of production for environmental schemes.
“The farm has no woodland or meadows, so we have no areas in environmental schemes that we could enhance without taking arable land out of production. Going forward, we need to look at what our return is on these areas because, if they will pay me £300/ha to plant wild flowers, it is better to do that than try to grow a crop of wheat on it.”
As the farm takes on more land, fixed costs will be spread over a bigger area, so the risk of these increasing as low-yielding land is taken out of production is minimal says Mr Price, who has already removed steep banks and parts of fields with lots of corners.
Sebastian Graff-Baker of Andersons, who suggested the approach to Mr Price, says it is about doing less, yet making the same amount or more money.
“There are parts of fields we are in a habit of farming and the yield on those parts is below the break-even yield. Where it is significantly below, it is creating a loss. As an industry, we seem to deal with averages and these are a bit of an enemy because they cover up the good and the bad,” says Mr Graff-Baker.
“If you take a typical first wheat crop which might be incurring variable costs of £500/ha and overhead costs, not including rent, of £375/ha, that gives you operational costs of £875/ha. If you simply divide that by anticipated selling price, say £150/t for a feed crop, it gives you a break even yield of 5.8t/ha.”
Mr Graff-Baker says if yield maps are interpreted in the right way, many growers will typically find 20 per cent of the area is producing a yield that is less than half the average yield.
“By James’ token of 8.4t/ha, then 20 per cent of your area is producing less than 4.2t/ha. Were you to continue, you would be incurring a loss of say 20 per cent of your area. So, there might be 20-30 per cent of your wheat area creating a loss.”
Farming in the Cotswolds, in a good year, Mr Price has achieved 11t/hectare wheat yields, despite growing into eight inches of shallow topsoil and a very stony subsoil. He hopes to achieve the same yields in the future, but by adopting a more conservative approach to inputs.
“The crux of any farming situation is what your limiting factor is – for us, it is water retention. But it could be excessive moisture or a bad case of black-grass – and weed pressure means that bit of land is not economical.
“We have been on a steady rise in yield, but weather extremes are really affecting us. Last year, we had 16 weeks without a drop of rain and we just cannot cope with that.”
Such challenging conditions have led Mr Price to scrutinise everything he is doing and on-farm trials allow him to make informed decisions on what is worth investing in.
“Last year Skyfall averaged 7.8t/ha, but Siskin did not do so well. Grain was very shrivelled and did not make milling. I think this season will make growers start looking at varietal tolerance more, with tolerance to drought as much as anything else. In cereals, we have had a really good example this year where Gleam stood out as being very green still, when everything else looked dead.”
In a bid to optimise inputs, Mr Price took part in Bayer’s Judge for Yourself trials, comparing the performance of Ascra (bixafen + fluopyram) against other actives.
“It is all about managing risk with fungicides. It is a big change where we have gone from having curative ability to no curative ability – if we go for a really cheap programme it will increase risk – and the return on investment with fungicides is always so good,” says Mr Price.
“I am thinking, rather than trying to always go for 11t/ha, I will grow an 8t/ha crop and in a good year I will still get an 11t/ha crop without the cost and the last five years paying for it,” said Mr Price.
Making best use of every tool in his armoury is important for Mr Price, who believes farmers do not always utilise technology available to them.
“A lot of people are not yield mapping or not measuring over a weigh bridge at harvest, so they do not know what is there until it is in the store. They know what their farm is doing as a whole, whereas I can go back to each individual field and that totally changes how you view it.
“We are too sentimental about the land we farm and think we have to farm it because we always have. With the changes we are seeing and the issues we have going forward, you cannot just keep doing the same as you have before.”