This year’s Arable finalists come from the heartland of East Anglia. All have a keen interest in soil fertility, have virtually vanquished blackgrass and invested heavily in modern machinery to cut overall running costs.
David Jones reports on three growers operating at the very top of their game.
Fletchers Farm, Fordham, Colchester, Essex
Tom Bradshaw is passionate about his soils and hopes by lengthening his contract farming deals he can push up organic matter and create a more sustainable agriculture.
He has expanded rapidly from a small Essex family farm 13 years ago by taking on the cropping on other neighbouring farms and then starred in the BBC’s Harvest programme last year.
His interest in soils was sparked when the dairy herd on the home farm was sold a decade ago and he noticed how easier the new arable soil was to work than some of his contract-farmed land.
This prompted him to successfully apply for a Nuffield study tour scholarship in 2011, where he was particularly impressed with a pioneer of direct drilled crops in Argentina.
There, on soils with 35% clay content and heavy rainfall, he saw crops immaculately produced with no visible soil compaction.
Back home, he realised organic matter was being lost in arable soils and, as this helps store water, provide nitrogen and resist compaction, then fertility is likely to be declining.
- Small family farm of 68ha, but farms a total of 1,604ha with contract farming operations
- Works with seven different landowners within a 22-mile radius of the home farm, covering a range of soil types
- Cropping consists of 791ha of wheat, 350ha of oilseed rape, 107ha of winter barley, 86ha of spring barley, 55ha of spring barley, 18ha of sugar beet and rest in grassland
- Two full-time staff plus others at harvest time
Rotations, reduced cultivations, and the future use of cover crops are now his priorities for his farming clients across his 1,604ha.
“We have to farm every acre like we are farming it forever,” he says.
Mr Bradshaw’s belief that troublesome weeds such as blackgrass can only be controlled by rotation reinforced his desire for longer-term farming contracts.
His first contracts were mapped out when he and his older brother were still at university, and he signed up his first farm in 2001 and two more followed during the next year.
Mr Bradshaw returned to the 86ha home farm in 2004, in the village of Fordham, five miles west of Colchester, with some big ideas.
The dairy herd was sold and replaced by a successful equestrian unit – helped by Essex having the highest horse population per capita in England – with a firm focus on arable.
He implemented a number of changes, such as detailed soil analysis, placing fertiliser next to the seed at drilling, changing to liquid fertiliser, wider tramlines and using cover crops to cut nutrient leaching and reduce soil erosion.
The business was built on second-hand machinery, but by 2012 the repair bill was rising out of control and forcing a rethink.
A fleet deal for two combines plus tractors was agreed with Case IH. This cut the repair bill by more than £40,000/year, and actually reduced costs per hectare.
Cutting with two combines rather than one raised costs by £7.50/ha but it was a price worth paying for his disparate farming enterprise and avoided the nightmare of combine breakdowns at harvest 2012.
He bought his older brother out of the business in 2010, and now runs it in partnership with his mother and father.
He works to no strict rotation but grows for the market. However, if there is bad blackgrass then he looks to two spring crops such as barley and beans to control the weed.
“We can only manage blackgrass by rotation, so that is the reason we are looking for more long-term contract agreements,” he says.
His Nuffield scholarship brought him to the attention of television and he starred in the BBC Harvest programme last year, which attracted up to three million viewers.
The programme was sold to him as an “opportunity to reconnect the public with farming” and he says it can only be deemed a success, with no financial gain to himself.
Back on his home farm he is experimenting with cover crops such as spring oats, drilled directly after the combine. He has selected black oats for their strong rooting, which in turn helps to improve soil structure. “We hope having land bare over winter will soon be history,” he adds.
Elveden Farms, Suffolk
Britain’s biggest arable estate takes some managing. One-and-a-quarter the size of Jersey in the Channel Islands, with 40 full-time farm staff, Elveden is a tough task for one man.
Throw in growing intensive vegetables on the lightest land in England, struggles with water shortages and protecting endangered bird species, and it’s quite a job.
Andrew Francis and his dedicated team churn out a plethora of potatoes, onions, carrots, parsnips and cereals on sandy soils naturally depleted of nutrients and not the easiest to manage.
The big Breckland estate in the top north-west corner of Suffolk encompasses woods and open heathland as well as arable land growing 6% of the UK’s onions, and enough rye for one in six of all Ryvita biscuits.
Out of the wilderness
The word Breckland derives from broken land where crops were only grown for one year. But massive irrigation work transformed this wilderness to productive farming land.
- The Elvedon Estate stretches over 9,400ha, of which 3,500ha is arable with the rest woodland and heathland
- A six-year rotation includes potatoes-onions-cereal-carrot or parsnips-cereal-cereal, with 550ha each in potatoes and onions, and 450ha in carrots and parsnips, 1,600ha of combinable crops with 350ha of variable grassland
- Some 40 full-time farm staff as part of 200 full-time employees across the whole estate
Mr Francis’ aim is to maintain soil fertility on these free-draining, low-nutrient soils with plenty of manure from the estate’s cattle and pig units and a six-year rotation with three years of cereals and three of vegetables.
In this productive system, feed wheat averages more than 10t/ha and winter rye, favoured over second wheats, can touch 10t/ha in a good year.
“We are seeing small annual yield increases, but we are very dependent on the weather,” he says.
Performance is, of course, critical for a capital-hungry business, and a sign of its health is this year’s investment of £2.5m in an onion store extension and £1.5m in a fleet of 14 Fendt tractors.
The business is benchmarked against the top 5% of arable farms in the country, and Mr Francis reports directly to an estate board headed by owner Edward Iveagh of the Guinness brewing dynasty.
“Edward wants to hand over the estate to his sons in at least as good a condition as now, so we are managing with a 100-year hat on,” Mr Francis says.
The Guinness family bought the estate in 1894 and Edward’s grandfather, Rupert, transformed the estate in the 1920s, establishing dairy, beef and sheep units and planting wooded breaks for a shooting estate.
With the advent of irrigation, the livestock departed and intensive vegetable production took hold, supplying the likes of McCain, Walkers Crisps and McDonald’s.
Irrigation is essential for the vegetable crops as Elveden’s sandy soils over chalky subsoils are very free draining and have very low moisture-holding capacity.
Boreholes and two reservoirs help ensure a sustainable water supply, which is essential as staff spend 14% of their time organising irrigation equipment to water crops.
Managing and delegation could be difficult in such a big team, so Mr Francis tries to plan a few days ahead and leave his two assistant managers to look after the day-to-day events.
Investment in the 14 new Fendt tractors this year came about after one of his staff assessed a new Fendt tractor against a competitor and produced a favourable cost-benefit analysis based on saving diesel.
His staff are also involved in protecting endangered species such as the ground-nesting stone curlew as the estate hosts about 50 pairs, which arrive in March from Africa to breed.
If the farm is irrigating over un-hatched nests then the eggs are removed to the safety of an incubator and replaced with dummy eggs so the real eggs are not chilled with water.
Once the irrigator has passed, the real eggs are returned and the parents are none the wiser. The same procedure takes place with small chicks.
The stone curlews have taken a liking to onion fields rather than their traditional habitat of lowland heath, as the onion smell confuses natural predators such as foxes and badgers.
Low prices and disease problems have put the carrots and parsnip crops under pressure, and oilseed rape is being tried as a replacement, but it is just one more crop to take up Mr Francis’ time.
Manor Farm, Salle Farms Co, Norwich, Norfolk
Finding the right rotation was the key building block for Poul Hovesen to double the output of his north Norfolk estate in seven years.
Yields are now higher after he settled on a seven-year cropping cycle tailor-made for his fertile but easily-damaged soils.
Some 27 years in Norfolk has taught the Danish-born Mr Hovesen the benefits of getting his predominantly light soils into good shape for winter wheat to yield up to nearly 13t/ha.
“The biggest factor behind raising yields is rotation, rotation and rotation, and then cultivation techniques,” he says.
This has allowed him to virtually vanquish blackgrass, improve his soil structure and prompted him to experiment with cover crops.
As a consequence, average wheat yields have risen from a little over 9t/ha to touching 11t/ha over the past 10 years, and sugar beet from 55t/ha to approaching 80t/ha.
Oilseed rape is averaging 5t/ha and spring barley 7.5t/ha, and he is adamant that his good spring barley crops are due to them following sugar beet rather than muddling in winter wheat.
- Salle Farms has been in the ownership of the White family for more than 120 years; soils are predominantly light sandy loams with some boulder clay valleys
- The area of the estate is 2,016ha, which includes 90ha of Christmas trees and woodland, and 237ha of wildlife areas, set-aside and permanent pasture
- Seven full-time farm staff, with five under the age of 30
“We need to stand back and think, and respect Mother Nature and the soil, as we need a sustained agriculture in a more open market,” he adds.
Back to the future
Mr Hovesen arrived in England from his native Denmark in 1987 to take up the role of arable manager at the 2,016ha Salle estate, some 12 miles north-west of Norwich near the village of Reepham.
He worked on finding a suitable rotation to help improve the soils and spread the harvest workload from early-cut winter barley to late-lifted sugar beet.
Mr Hovesen settled on a seven-year rotation of winter wheat, winter barley, oilseed rape, winter wheat, sugar beet, either winter wheat or spring barley and then spring beans.
The plough is used liberally through the rotation and, with a possible three spring crops in succession, blackgrass is a minor problem.
“When I arrived at Salle there was lot of blackgrass – now there is hardly any. I am very pleased we got our house in order before we started to get blackgrass resistance,” he says.
Rotation is key in controlling blackgrass, but timing of drilling and cultivations, uniform seed-bed and judicial use of herbicide have also helped.
The spread of crops to harvest has kept labour cost down, with just seven full-time farm staff, five of them under 30, and just one combine to cut nearly 2,000ha of combinable crops.
The farm is involved in trying to cut levels of water pollution into the local River Wensum, with monitoring by the University of East Anglia and funding by Defra and the Environmental Agency.
The aim is to test on-farm measures to cut pollution while maintaining food production, and trials are taking place across 143ha of the estate with researchers testing water from the farm drains.
Cover crop strategy
Work using cover crops such as oilseed radish is under way to see how these overwintered crops can hold nutrients and may cut fertiliser requirements for subsequent crops.
“Ideally we would not have winter stubbles and have cover crops ahead of crops like spring beans and sugar beet,” Mr Hovesen says.
The search is now on to find a crop that gives good ground cover at a seed cost of about £40/ha, is easy to kill in the spring and then establish a commercial crop.
The successes at Salle prompted owner Sir John White to acquire 900ha of arable land in Poland in 2006, which is also managed by Mr Hovesen.
In addition, Mr Hovesen took on the management of the separately owned nearby Holkham Estate with nearly 3,000ha of arable land at the end of 2011.
It is perhaps appropriate given Mr Hovesen’s focus on rotations that taking on Holkham brought him to the home of the Norfolk four-course rotation.
“These excellent finalists all demonstrate that attention to detail is key in delivering a profitable arable enterprise, with the drive and determination to achieve high yields in all crops. They all possess the passion to succeed and support the development of young people in the workforce.”
Dan Downs, agriculture business manager
Find out more about the 2014 Farmers Weekly Awards