• Andrew Cotton
  • Oxfordshire

“Life and death,” Andrew Cotton tells me in answer to my final question: “What is your finest achievement on farm?”

The answer is a reference to the time he spent with one of his farming clients following a tragic loss in the family. “I spent hours with him, talking, helping him through that time. There wasn’t anybody else to do that for him,” he says.

It sums Andrew up. He is always there for his clients, professionally, obviously, but also personally. “You do get to know them, get involved in interesting discussions about other issues.”

Based in Oxfordshire, Andrew has been an AICC-registered independent agronomist since 1996, following a 20-year career in ADAS. He walks 15,000 acres for 30 clients, while his son, Luke, has a further 10,000 acres.

Luke joined the business six years ago, when arable farming was less profitable. “But I was convinced, and convinced him, that it was the right thing to do.”

Financially it was a risk, he admits, as Luke learned the ropes. “But you’ve got to invest in the future. I hope my example will be followed – we need to get the next generation back into the business.”

The risk seems to have paid off. Andrew has been able to cut back on his area from 19,000 acres – “it was too much” – but still expand the business, with room for further growth. “People are coming to us, too, which is nice, rather than having to walk up farm drives.”

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Technically, as you would expect, Andrew is top notch. Resistant blackgrass is a huge challenge in his patch, but he has evolved strategies to help protect key chemical options, such as Atlantis (mesosulfuron-methyl + iodosulfuron-methyl-sodium) or to seek alternatives on the farms where Atlantis is failing.

He is also not afraid to advise unusual strategies. For example, on Charlie Edgeley’s farm in Cadmore End, Buckinghamshire, where we met Andrew, he helped persuade Charlie that a move to a continuous wheat rotation on the farm would be the best strategy for the future. “The farm was all cereals with oats as the break. But we had problems with weed control in oats, and barley yields were poor. We tried rape and peas as breaks, but there were massive problems with pigeons and game birds. So Andrew said ‘why not go all wheat?’.

“It’s worked out well. On infertile soils, our five-year wheat average is about 3.2t/acre, and, more importantly, our overall farm margin compares very well.”

For another client who became a single operator after the retirement of his one employee on 200ha (500 acres), Andrew advised moving to Autocast establishment of oilseed rape. “It allowed him to get over land quicker and then devote more resources to getting wheat drilled in better time.”

The result has been a saving in fixed costs, while yields in oilseed rape have remained stable and improved in the wheat.

Others have benefited from Andrew’s ability to analyse different future approaches for example, whether to employ contractors or full-time staff, and his excellent administrative skills from budget planning to completing those all-important SFP and ELS applications and drawing up and monitoring contract and share-farming agreements.

Several of Andrew’s clients also enjoy being part of the Chiltern Arable Group he helps run. Based on four farm walks around the key fungicide timings in the spring and a gross margin review meeting in the winter, it enables members to benchmark themselves against others in the group, highlighting differences in costs, yields and margins.

Strong technically, Andrew Cotton has also had his moments as a counsellor to those of his clients who are going through difficult times.

What the judges liked

  • Professionalism and all-round business knowledge
  • Investment in the future with son
  • Good grasp of key technical issues
  • Good manipulation of farming systems to suit client and farm

Adviser facts

  • Independent agronomist covering Bucks, Oxon and Berks
  • Field walks 6000ha (15,000 acres) for 30 clients
  • Offers agronomy advice plus business management and general guidance, including SFP, ELS and cross-compliance
  • Co-ordinates Chiltern Arable Group