Spring is an ideal time for forward planning, from variety and fertiliser choice to sorting out labour shortages. Olivia Cooper visits our four contributors to find out what decisions they are making and how they are likely to impact on the bottom line.
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.
WITH the potato planting season not too far away, Oliver Savage has been busy collecting potato cyst nematode, soil nutrition, and free-living nematode results.
“We can then choose appropriate varieties or change site. We’re always trying to take cost out the business, but have to be realistic about hitting contract targets.” With everything grown on contract, he has also been agreeing varieties and prices for the year ahead. The farm had, until recently, two employees, and uses contractors in peak periods, sowing spring cereals and preparing the ground so farm staff can plant potatoes.
“We harvest all our cereals ourselves, and lift green top early potatoes on demand early in the morning so we can move onto cutting cereals later in the day.” However, to try and cut costs and improve labour quality and consistency, Mr Savage is increasing his work force and cutting back on contractors.
“We’ve hired a couple of people recently so my focus now will be training them. Having to train contractors every year on how Cockrill’s likes to do things is very time consuming, so having more farm staff will be a cost saving.”
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.
WINTER is a good time for general estate maintenance and getting ready for spring calving at Fawley Court, but Mark Wood is also making plans for some arable work. “As soon as it’s dry enough to travel we’ll spray off cover crops and overwintered stubbles ready for spring drilling,” he says.
“We’ll also get an early dose of nitrogen on some backward-looking oilseed rape and apply spring herbicides to winter wheat which has got some brome and broad-leaved weeds after oats last year.”
Generally, the stubbles are pretty clean, so Mr Wood may be able to direct drill his spring beans in April, when the north-facing heavy ground warms up. “It will be very wet underneath, so we’d rather direct drill. Also, there’s black-grass in those fields and it’s clean on top, so we’d like to disturb the soil as little as possible.” However, direct drilling across the whole farm hasn’t worked as the sandy loam soils
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.
A VERY wet start to the year has left Jimmy Gooderham waiting patiently for his soils to dry out before preparing for the forthcoming sugar beet crop.
“Even the light land is too wet to travel on,” he says. “We’ve got lime applications and the base fertiliser to get on as soon as possible, and then we’ll apply chicken muck and digestate just before drilling. The later the better really, I don’t want to lose any of the nutrients before the seed is in the ground.”
Mr Gooderham tests his soil rotationally every three years, and analyses the digestate annually.
“It varies depending on what feedstock we’ve used, whereas the chicken muck doesn’t change much, so we test that less often.” He then alters the amount of inorganic fertiliser required, accordingly. “It doesn’t save money, as it costs much the same as bagged fertiliser, but we are building the soil indices and organic matter. In one year we had a noticeable yield increase, in the other two it was inconclusive, but we’re definitely moving away from manufactured fertiliser.
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.
EARLY spring is all about risk management for Tom Bradshaw – trying to get the most from his crops while still keeping a lid on costs.
“I like to get a decent lump of fertiliser under our crops in February in case it turns dry and prevents nutrients from getting into the crop. Last year lots of crops looked poor in the drought, but I think a lot of it was nutrient stress.” Fungicides are another key issue.
“I’ve seen reports of yellow rust so we are keeping a close eye on our Lili wheat – it will definitely get a T0. However, the Siskin isn’t as susceptible so to save costs we may not do a T0 on that – it will depend on the disease pressure.”
Siskin did not stand as well as expected last year, so Mr Bradshaw will also be using a more robust growth regulator.
“The pre-ems have performed reasonably well and now it is all about field walking to work out which areas require over-spraying, although we try to avoid the main sulfonylureas due to poor efficacy,” he says. Another job is planning the variable seed rates for spring crops.
“Based on soil type analysis we’ll increase seed rate where we expect poor germination, to get the crops off to an even start.”
BREXIT is understandably a concern for many growers and especially the future of support payments. While the lack of information is frustrating, it seems clear that the £3 billion which goes into this sector is secure for at least two more harvests.
The trick is to use this breathing space to prepare for perhaps the inevitable. The most efficient 20% of cereal farmers produce 35% of UK wheat with a unit cost of less than £125/tonne. Those 20% tend to be a little bit better at everything rather than astoundingly better at one thing - and it is typically just being that little better prepared. So as you read this month’s contributions, take a look at the types of decisions being made, and ask – ‘what little change can I make this month to make a difference and improve my yield or quality, and help lower my costs of production?’