Fertiliser spreading©Tim Scrivener

Electronic crop records are helping one West Sussex farmer gain a better understanding of his fields and monitor costs as he establishes his fledgling arable business.

Robert Wilkins bought Pallingham Farm three years ago and had limited first-hand knowledge of field potential. Of the total 260ha, 150ha is arable cropping, most being sandy loam with clay caps in places.

See also: GateKeeper crop farming software

A proportion of the arable area is ploughed out pasture, with no prior cropping history. So to get a better picture of the land and its capabilities, he has been making greater use of his GateKeeper crop management software.

Farm facts

Pallingham Farm, West Sussex

  • 262ha in total
  • 137ha of arable cropping
  • 100ha of pasture (most in ELS and HLS); remainder environmental and pheasant margins
  • 2015 cropping: Naked oats, winter wheat, winter barley, oilseed rape and spring barley
  • Four horse yards, renting out boxes
  • Herd of 120 head of beef cattle including 40 Sussex cows
  • Key software packages used: Crop Manager, GateKeeper

Field yields

At harvest, he uses trailers fitted with the RDS Trailer Weighing system, which he calibrates before harvest to be as accurate as possible.

“All fields are weighed across this. Stock takes are carried out at the end of the season and if some is left, the software will allocate this across the fields in proportion to their size,” he explains.

“It means we get a relatively good yield estimate for each field. It is not as good as yield mapping on the combine, but we don’t have a big enough area to justify investing in this technology,” he says.

Overall yields were good in his second year, getting more than 7.42t/ha for oats, 6.6t/ha for spring wheat (Mulika), 8.9t/ha for winter barley and 6.9t/ha for winter wheat.

“This was disappointing for winter wheat in what was a good year,” which he believes was due to compaction caused by horses in the former pasture.

“We are still unsure what our land is capable of and it will take many years to get a good handle as the rotations bed in.”

Machinery costs

Having a true figure for machinery costs is another priority for Mr Wilkins as he establishes his business and for this he uses a US program combined with GateKeeper.

The US Vehicle Manager is designed for fleets of lorries, but he uses it for tractors, combine and grain dryer.

It allows him to maintain digital tractor log books and generate service reminders. It also tracks fuel efficiency and total service and repair costs.

Robert Wilkins

Robert Wilkins

Armed with this data, Mr Wilkins knows that his New Holland CS 540 with 15ft header costs £89/hour to run, equating to £30/acre. “On a good day, we can cut 35 acres but average nearer 30 acres.”

His two tractors, a John Deere 6930 and New Holland 7030, cost £40/hour. Spraying using the mounted Amazone 24m comes to £5.80/ha including tractor costs.

“Having our own sprayer stacks up, as timeliness is key. Our aim is that herbicides and fungicides go on the same day as needed or as close as possible. When using a contractor, you don’t always get on in ideal conditions. And if the wind does drop mid-afternoon, you can still get on,” he says.

“[GateKeeper] is only as good as the data you put in. You can’t con it and you only end up conning yourself.”

With this field yield and cost data, he reviews each harvest with his agronomist and looks for ways to improve performance and cut costs.

“This year [2014-15], we are looking to control costs through a greater emphasis on getting fungicides on the right day, and with better timings, we hope to cut pesticide use.

Rotation planning

Looking forward, GateKeeper helps Mr Wilkins with his rotation planning, by having all the records readily at hand.

“I’m moving to a four year rotation to improve soil structure, prevent blackgrass becoming a real problem and to save on herbicide costs.”

He eventually hopes to have winter wheat followed by winter oats, spring wheat and spring beans.

This year for the first time, he has opted for naked oats to add value, as he knows it isn’t 10t/ha wheat land. He secured a £44/t premium over feed wheat and has sold a proportion forward.

“Including naked oats has also cut input costs and could become a key crop.”

In conclusion, he sees the value in investing time in the office feeding data into the crop management programme and interrogating the figures.

“It’s farming by instinct, but using precision tools to farm the area more efficiently,” he says.