When farmers pool resources and work together it does not just benefit the bottom line, as Clemmie Gleeson finds out when she spoke to Ian Matts of Brixworth Farming.
It was a local event about collaboration that provided the momentum for three farming businesses deciding to work together.
Ian Matts, whose family business T.C. Matts and Sons is based in Creaton, says: “My father had been passing neighbours on his sprayer heading to a block of land while they were travelling on their sprayers to reach outlying land in the opposite direction. He thought why do we not just spray each other’s land.
“Thankfully there were a few neighbours who had the same mindset.”
After discussions in the meeting organised by a property consultancy firm, they could see the potential benefits and in 2000 Brixworth Farming was founded with three farms in north Northamptonshire.
A fourth joined a year later and another soon after. Since then another two members have joined Brixworth’s crop pool.
“Effectively in year one, harvest was carried out by the joint venture business, but the crops had been grown by individuals. After that everything was pooled, machinery was reviewed and labour was rationalised as well,” Ian says.
Brixworth Farming is overseen by a board of directors with representatives from each of its farming members, with Ian taking responsibility for day-to-day management decisions.
He has been a shareholder in the business since graduating from Newcastle University in 2005, initially taking a back seat while he worked as an agronomist for Yara UK. Then in 2016 he was made arable director at Brixworth, before taking over as managing director in April 2019.
While the exact area changes slightly each year due to environmental activities, the business is responsible for 2,400 hectares (5,930 acres) of arable crops for 2021.
“All farms are in some form of stewardship scheme, either Mid Tier or Higher Tier and we are responsible for the delivery of some of this stewardship too,” Ian adds.
The farms are mostly heavy soils ranging from sandstone and ironstone through to clays. There is variation between farms and at field level too, says Ian. Average field size is 8ha (20 acres), which is a challenge when trying to improve efficiencies.
Until recently, the rotation across all the arable land had been wheat, barley, oilseed rape, wheat, beans.
“We have now decided to drop oilseed rape for the time being, but we are not fully giving up on it yet,” Ian says.
“We are still individuals with our stewardship schemes. I think there would be much greater merit if we could have one stewardship application for a group of farms”
The decision to take a break from oilseed rape came after two very challenging years.
“In 2018 we held off drilling until September, waiting for some moisture, but it was one of the driest Septembers on record,” says Ian.
“Only the early drilled crops grew.
“It meant yields were 50 per cent down overall, with some fields not being taken to harvest.
“In 2019 it never really got away from the flea beetle, so that was the biggest challenge that autumn.”
Ian took time to calculate the outcome from different scenarios.
“I found it too difficult to justify putting a crop in this year,” he says.
“Possibly with hindsight it would have been okay because the flea beetle pressure is significantly lower, but having gone down the Clearfield route it makes it more challenging to dip in and out. We cannot reduce some of the costs of establishing the crop because we cannot save seed.
“We are not necessarily saying we will not grow it again, but the risk is too high at the moment. Clearly something is not right for us to have been so highly reliant on an insecticide seed treatment to grow it successfully. We need to make improvements to reduce the risk of failure.”
Leaving oilseed rape out of the rotation this year will potentially have other positive impacts, Ian says.
“We have had a wet autumn but have not had the slug pressure that others have had following rape.”
Ian also hopes he will have avoided the damage which rape can cause to mycorrhizal fungi populations in the soil.
“The biggest negative though is the loss of a good break crop and one that is financially rewarding when you get a good yield,” he says.
Instead, Ian is thinking about adding rye to the rotation followed by canary seed or oats as a break crop.
“It is a lot of white-strawed crops in a row. We are already growing pulses, so we have got to try and do something to add diversity back into the rotation.”
With this in mind he has been trialling the use of cover crops for the past six years.
“It is something I believe we will have to increase and use more widely,” he says.
“For the past five years we have taken the worst black-grass land out of the rotation and put it into a cover crop, spring barley, separate rotation.
"We have played around with different cover crop mixes and different ways of establishing the crop. We have not necessarily settled on anything, but I certainly believe in the principles behind it and with so many cereal crops we need to be putting something back into the soil.”
Timing of establishment plays a significant role as well as the specific mix chosen, he adds.
“Unsurprisingly, if you drill too late you will not achieve the desired aim. The diversity of crops being put back into the soil give the soil life, structure and nutrients. It does come with its challenges on heavy ground though.”
Rye would be a new crop for Brixworth and Ian is not committed to it yet.
“There appears to be an increased demand for rye and some contracts have been available this year,” he says.
Brixworth Farming has been growing small amounts of canary seed already while spring oats were grown for the first time in 2020.
“They established really well and were relatively straightforward to grow this season, but just when they were ready to harvest, we had two storms come through which was not ideal. They still yielded incredibly well considering.”
In the four years of growing canary seed it has not always been as successful, but its late drilling means it is a good option to aid black-grass control – across the whole farmed area, the main challenge is black-grass.
One of Ian’s most successful ways to control it has been late drilling, which is difficult with the heavier soils.
“We are trying to formulate plans on how to de-risk late drilling on heavy soils, maybe through catch crops,” says Ian.
“I am very interested in the theory behind regenerative agriculture. I really buy into it but am struggling to see how we can get it to work on our ground. You only have to look at the struggles with oilseed rape to see that the system is broken.
“It is the same with dealing with black-grass. We have had some fantastic chemistry, but there has been a history of us as an industry over-relying on it.”
Another challenge for Ian managing five farms together is integrating environmental stewardship work.
He says: “We deal with the arable crops and some of the stewardship options which allow us whole field options such as fallows. But because we are dealing with a number of different businesses it is difficult to integrate some of the stewardship options.
“We have a long history of collaboration, but we are still individuals with our stewardship schemes. I think there would be much greater merit if we could have one stewardship application for a group of farms.
"It would allow much better management and would help get more out of the options for improving soil health and black-grass control rather than a single field here and there. The conversations I have had about it are all positive, but the computer says no when it comes to the administration.”
Success for Brixworth Farming is shown in terms of return to its shareholders and crop pool members.
“Because we are a joint venture business Brixworth Farming never sees the basic payment,” says Ian.
“We deal with crop economics. The biggest measure of success therefore is the net margin of all the crops across the rotation.”
Going forward soil health will also become a measure of success.
“We have recently sent soils off for testing for organic matter,” he says.
“It is too early to measure any success, but we will be testing every four years.”
Benchmarking is something Brixworth Farming has also been keen on from the start.
“From day one we have benchmarked against our own performance and others, so we can monitor how successful we have been with different measures.
“One of the benefits of the Joint Venture Farming Group is we all have similar businesses, so we can really compare like for like. A lot of the benefit comes from the discussion afterwards.”
With all the changes going on in the industry, Ian says he and his fellow shareholders are always keen to discuss the potential to grow the business further.
“We are well placed with our history to help those who also want to look at things differently,” he adds.