The need to improve soil health and the important role cover cropping plays in achieving this is a common theme for all three finalists despite their different approaches.
Brixworth Farming, Creaton, Northamptonshire
There is the saying “yield is king” but for Charles Matts, it is all about maximising margins and his success is down to having a unique relationship with his grain merchant.
His aim is to add value where possible and only grow varieties that command a premium.
This vision is proving successful for Brixworth Farming, a contract farming joint venture between five farms on mainly heavy land.
While grain merchants normally get involved at the end of the cropping cycle to sell the crop, Charles does the opposite.
- 2,239ha across five farms
- Cropping winter wheat, oilseed rape and beans
- Two full-time and four casual staff
- Soils are predominantly clay with some lighter Banbury ironstone soil
He involves his merchant at the start when selecting which varieties to grow, for advice on which ones he can add value to.
“Last year we grew some Kielder that yielded 11.2t/ha, while Revelation averaged 9.8t/ha. But Revelation gave the better overall margin because of the premium,” he says.
A unique part of the arrangement is that all crops are hauled from the field, with chaser bins loading into lorries. There is no on-farm storage.
“We pay up to £19/t for haulage, storage, drying and laboratory services.”
He explains that it releases the old grain store to be rented out as office units, which covers the cost.
“In return, we are seeing an average £5/t better price,” he says.
Charles is also adding value to oilseed rape, which is grown on contract with ADM to make Hellmann’s mayonnaise, fetching a £15/t premium. It requires being a member of Linking Environment and Farming (Leaf), which he achieved in 2014, plus a whole host of other requirements.
“We were thinking about it [joining Leaf] for a while to get public recognition for the work we do to protect our environment and add to the Brixworth Farming brand. The ADM contract just tipped the balance and we went for it.”
He admits it was lot of effort, but it was well worth it. In addition, the premium is worth £30,000 to Brixworth Farming.
Another key challenge where Charles has taken a novel approach is blackgrass.
“We were spending £140/ha on herbicides and we had to get on top of it,” Charles says.
He adds: “It got so bad in 2013 that one field had to be sprayed off with glyphosate.”
A key part of the strategy is colour-coding fields according to level of blackgrass – red, yellow and green – with fields mapped with drones.
He says the aim is to turn red fields into yellow and yellow into green, by prioritising those fields.
The judges liked
- Good grasp of the farm’s cost structure
- Colour-coding of fields and strategy for tackling blackgrass
- Excellent staff management and training
Green fields do not receive Avadex (tri-allate), but will still get a pre-emergence herbicide, while red fields are drilled later to enable more stale seed-beds.
The strategy also spells out at what point fields are whole-cropped or sprayed off, as well as the approach to combine hygiene at harvest to stop seed spreading between fields.
“We shared it with the team, so they all understood their role. For example, the sprayer operator sees first-hand where the blackgrass is when going through crops.”
He acknowledges it will be a huge challenge. “But we are up for it and are already seeing some real reductions in populations.”
Another part of the blackgrass plan is moving soil as little as possible and making more of stale seed-beds. Switching from ploughing to non-inversion tillage delivered a £16,000 saving in fuel.
Concerns about soil compaction with the min-till approach and recognising the need to improve soil health led to the introduction of cover cropping this season.
“Our soils range from 2.7% to 6.7% soil organic matter content, with an average of 4.9%. Our aim is to increase this and we are also looking to monitor changes to soil micro-organisms.”
Cover crops consist of black oats, berseem clover and phacelia.
While Charles has had successes at Brixworth, the wider farming sector is also benefiting from his experience. Notably he is a founding chairman of the Joint Venture Farming Group aimed at helping others by benchmarking labour and machinery costs.
He represents the local community on the local Catchment Sensitive Farming Group and is a founding trustee of the Farm Safety Foundation charity promoting awareness of safety issues.
“The industry needs to look after its people and it is something I believe in.”
This underlines the value he puts on staff. As well as organising a team-building day, he also consults them about key decisions.
And by building a strong team, he is well placed to win the blackgrass battle and steer Brixworth Farming to greater successes.
Wheatsheaf Farming, Hampshire
Soil health is David Millers’ answer to breaking the yield plateau and ensuring the business can weather low grain and oilseed prices.
His quest to improve soil health has seen a move to no-till farming and using roots to do the cultivations instead of metal.
This culminated in cover crops taking over the largest area of Wheatsheaf Farming last autumn, with 400ha established.
- 1,600ha across six farms
- Cropping winter wheat, oilseed rape, winter and spring barley, spring oats, yellow linseed and cover crops
- Four full-time staff
- Soils are light flints over chalk
The Wheatsheaf Farming Company crops six farms on behalf of the owners/tenants.
Explaining the reason for the change, he says there was a big reliance on a good year to make it pay. “We were also seeing a plateauing of yields.”
He has always been interested in cover crops, but it wasn’t until he attended a Royal Agricultural Society of England workshop on enriching soils that he decided to give it a go.
“An early mistake was wondering if we were going to get the establishment costs back in the next crop. It is a long-term process and trials showed this.”
David started with a bean and vetch autumn cover crop and drilled spring barley into it.
“Using leaf N analyses, we could see a big difference compared with a field with no cover crop. We therefore cut back on nitrogen fertiliser by 10kg/ha and it still yielded 15% more.”
Both fields then went into winter barley in the following year. “We saw a big difference – it looked greener and the N sensor found 25% more nitrogen in the leaf.”
Growing the cover crop resulted in an extra 0.5t/ha yield with the same fertiliser input, he says.
In 2014, he put the case to the company partners and they decided to take the new approach, recognising soil was the limiting factor.
The judges liked
- Passion and strong belief in what he is doing
- Has a very detailed technical knowledge of soils
- Excellent, uniform-looking crops
David opted for a cover crop of tillage radish, oil radish, phacelia, vetch and berseem clover at a cost of £38/ha. He believes the cover crop somehow allows following crops to access nutrients they could not before.
Cropping is one-third wheat, one-third break crops and one-third spring and winter barley, which helps spread workloads.
His long-term holy grail is an all-cereal rotation of winter wheat followed by spring barley and then winter barley. The break crops are the six- to seven-month autumn cover crop before spring barley, plus eight- to 10-week catch crops in other years.
This autumn, he is taking the bold decision to drop oilseed rape completely, as the economics no longer stack up at £260/t. The crop is also not a host species of mycorrhizal fungi. David wants to build up levels of this fungi in the soil and growing rape hinders this.
“They have a big part to play in increasing yields by increasing the ability of roots to forage further for available nutrients, increasing root performance by up to 700%,” he explains.
As part of his continued quest for better soil health, David is moving to the Cross Slot direct drill run in tandem with a stripper header.
“Last year, we had straw-like silage in spring barley, which we couldn’t glyphosate off as it was being grown for seed.”
He’s hoping this will make it easier to drill the following crop, as the Cross Slot deals with more residue.
The system does not only improve soil health, there are cost benefits too and David has seen a £15/ha saving in labour and fuel.
Costs are also minimised by buying ex-demo or second-hand combines at three years of age and keeping them for five years using a service package.
“This allows us to run large combines relatively cheaply to enable timely harvest.”
He is adding value to crops where possible with spring barley and spring oats grown for seed, milling wheat accounting half of the wheat area, yellow linseed for the human market. Even Group 4 feed wheats get a premium from his local mill in Andover.
Good relations with the local community and the next generation is also important to David, who is a steward at the South of England Society’s Countryside Day, where 2,500 year 5 and 6 pupils find out about farming. He even hosts his own open day involving local schools.
“One reason is we require a very skilled workforce and these positions will be ultimately filled from this pool of young people.”
David is at the cutting edge of soil health. He sees this as a unique selling point for expansion and to bring soil health benefits across a wider area of Hampshire. “With the previous system, I could not see it having a future.”
The Grange, Topcliffe, North Yorkshire
Yorkshire and Australia have a few things in common. An obvious one is a passion for cricket, and cropping system could soon be another, with Graham Potter taking an Aussie approach on his farm near Thirsk.
- 195ha family-owned business
- Cropping winter wheat, oilseed rape, fodder beet and cover crops
- Staff comprise Graham and a seasonal worker
- Soils are a wide range, from clay to blowing sand
Having spent several years on a farm in Western Australia, Graham saw first-hand how soils benefited from precision agronomy, direct drilling and a greater focus on soil health.
“They use variable rates on everything and on the farm I worked at, you really could see the benefits,” he says.
Back home on the family farm, he explains that the combine needed replacing and they recognised that the way they farmed the land needed to change, as soil health was suffering.
“So I thought, what’s stopping us doing the same on a smaller scale in Yorkshire?”
He started four years ago by investing in GPS technology to enable variable applications of N, P, K and seed, replaced the combine, tractor and bought a new Claydon direct drill.
RTK guidance then enabled Graham to adopt controlled traffic farming, creating permanent tramlines for tractors, sprayers and the combine to travel on to minimise compaction.
This extra accuracy with RTK guidance also allows crops to be established with the Claydon in 30cm rows, with subsequent crops shifted 15cm.
“Seed is, therefore, drilled into the clean row middle, avoiding the problem of stubble interfering with the drill,” he says.
To help spread the capital cost, Graham has branched into contract harvesting on two neighbouring farms, as well as offering consultancy on precision farming, GateKeeper and the John Deere Green Star Systems.
Graham estimates the machinery investment will pay for itself by next summer through a combination of lower costs and higher crop yields.
Moving to a min-till system has cut fuel use and labour requirements, with Graham comfortably managing the workload alone, with help from a seasonal worker during harvest.
Crop yields have started to rise, which he believes is due to the improved soil fertility resulting from precision application of fertiliser.
“Wheat averaged 10-10.2t/ha and last year we were up to 11t/ha. I believe we will eventually reach 12-12.5t/ha. There is more we can achieve,” he says.
The judges liked
- Early adopter of new technology
- Very knowledgeable about precision farming
- Remote control of grain dryer with a unique app
The improved soil fertility is also being seen in his soil maps. “We are starting to see fields even up for P indices with fewer colours on the map.”
Soil health is another of Graham’s passions, with his focus on getting organic matter back into his soils. But he is doing it the hard way – without the use of manure or slurry, instead relying on a combination of chopping straw and cover cropping.
“Because of the weed seed risk, I have a policy of not using manures brought in from other farms.” His concerns over heavy metal loading also rules out the use of sewage sludge.
This approach is understandable given that his farm has no resistant blackgrass problem and he wants it to stay that way.
Cover crops consist of vetches, phacelia and forage rye and are environment focus area (EFA) compliant. His rotation is first wheat, second wheat and then a cover crop prior to fodder beet on lighter land and spring barley on heavier land.
Other technology includes kit imported from Australia to enable variable-rate spraying with his Bateman sprayer and next year he hopes to vary growth regulator applications on oilseed rape, according to green area index.
However, one unique gadget he developed with a friend is an app that enables him to control his grain dryer while sat in the combine cab.
“I can see exactly what is happening with the handling equipment and the dryer, and make adjustments as necessary.”
Half of his grain and rapeseed is sold into a pool and the rest on the open market, using Gleadall, Frontier, Openfield and Nideria. Graham looks to add value where possible.
“We have a feed mill just up the road and I get a £5/t bonus by delivering feed wheat.” This season, the improved soil fertility has seen a return of milling wheat to the rotation.
Looking to the future, this corner of Yorkshire is set to see a growing Aussie influence.
Graham has big ambitions to grow his consultancy and eventually take on more land, farming it using his proven system from Australia.
Arable Farmer of the Year is sponsored by Frontier.
“We work with the best and most innovative arable growers in the country every day, and it is always interesting to see new ideas in action. The finalists all demonstrated thought-provoking ideas and progressive use of technology on their farms”
Charlie Whitmarsh, Crop production director