In Farmers Weekly’s final visit to Godwick Hall, Andrew Shirley finds getting even closer to its customers and simplifying farming systems are top priorities for the farm’s future.
 
When Farmers Weekly first headed to Norfolk in 2005 to meet John and Robert Garner, the business was reeling from the unexpected loss of a 500-acre arable contract on a neighbouring farm.
 
“At the time it really hurt financially because of the investment we’d made in extra machinery,” says Robert, who looks after Godwick’s arable soils and turkeys.

“But the flip-side of the coin was that the business had to readdress its position and the expansion of the turkey business has more than replaced the contracting monies.”

Double numbers

Robert has doubled the number of free-range Norfolk Bronze birds reared on the farm to 3000, which he would never had time to do if he was still contracting.

“It shows that difficult situations can bring opportunities,” he says.
 
Expanding his turkey operation has shown Robert that getting closer to its customers is vital for UK agriculture, which in many cases is still too isolated from the end user of what it produces.

‘Being a service provider is key’

“What’s important to me is that we’re not just a turkey producer, we’re a service provider and that’s the key to it. The more I help my customers, the more I’m going to sell.
 
“I stared supplying a new farm shop this year and we paid for photographs of the owner with the turkeys that he can use in his butchery.

“He said to me ‘Robert, this year I sold more turkeys than ever. The one thing you’ve grasped is doing just that little bit extra for your customers’.”

‘Simplifying systems’

Building the business hasn’t been cheap. Robert says he’s spent over £100,000 on new equipment and buildings for the birds. It’s also put pressure on the arable operations.
 
“Generally the two do complement each other in terms of peak workloads, but the bigger the turkey enterprise gets the less time I have to devote to really concentrate on the arable side of things.”
 
With cereal prices hitting record highs, taking his eye off the ball is something Robert knows he can’t afford to do and he’s made a number of management decisions to make the system simpler.
 
Specialist contracting

The purchase of a powerful second-hand John Deere crawler made fieldwork quicker and has also allowed Robert to move closer to a min-till system with fewer machinery passes and more economical use of fuel.
 
His latest machinery buy, a new 3m Sumo Trio cultivating system that cost £13,000, will be used to help drill oilseed rape, wheat and winter beans.

If the bean system, which will use an Accord drill, proves successful, Robert says he may consider doing some specialist contracting with it.
 
Radical solutions

OSR on the heavier land will still go in behind a plough for the moment, but a more radical solution could be the long-term answer for the farm, he says.

“If I was brave enough continuous wheat would be the ideal thing for us to do.”
 
Father John experimented with the system once and says after years three, four and five, when take all and yields were an issue, there were very few problems and the soil structure actually seemed to improve.
 
Grain marketing is important

Robert says this would cost an extra £10/acre in fertiliser, but the reduced costs and time saved would more than cover that.
 
Marketing his grain well is as important to him as marketing his turkeys and Robert says using options has proved invaluable, especially after he sold a load of wheat at £83/t before the market really started to take off.

“Taking out an option meant I got £105/t instead.”
 
‘Welcome boost’

The rise in cereal prices since FW first visited Godwick Hall (see table) has provided a welcome boost to arable profits – Robert recently sold a load of oilseed rape for £311/t delivered at harvest 2008 – but the subsequent rise in feed costs is not good news for the turkey and sheep enterprises.

“I haven’t seem rape so high for 20 years, but if these prices continue it’s going to be unbearable for the livestock sector.

“There is only so much you can pass on to your customers. I think wheat at £120/t would be a level that would work for everybody.”

As well as balancing different farming operations, Robert says the arrival of his first child, Elle-Mai, just before Christmas has taught him a valuable lesson.

“There’s no point putting everything into the farm if you don’t have any time left for your family.”
 
John, who looks after the farm’s pedigree and commercial sheep flocks, has maintained profitability but is worried that there will be no sheep left in East Anglia by the end of the decade if prices don’t improve.
 
“Over the years the most successful thing I’ve done is the continued use of high-index rams under the Suffolk Sire Reference Scheme,” he says.
 
This has allowed him to sell lambs at 23-25kg without excess fat, when most are marketed at 17-18kg.

“That’s increased my output by 20% so we’ve made money when others haven’t.”

Price changes at Godwick Hall

 

22 July 2005

11 January 2008

Feed wheat (£/t)

61.3

168.4

Milling wheat (£/1)

81.1

192.1

Oilseed rape (£/t)

124.8

305.1

Feed beans (£/t)

89.5

201.3

Finished lambs (p/kg lw)

114.1

97.3

Getting closer to customers

Establishing good relationships with three key customers has also helped John weather the worst of the lamb prices, and he says selling game and lamb at local farmers markets has benefited the business by promoting the Godwick brand to the public.

“We have to get closer to them.”
 
His biggest disappointment has been the unpopularity the Suffolk Sheep with commercial breeders because pedigree breeders have been concentrating on head and bone rather than the carcass.

Determined to keep going
 
“To try and improve things they now they want us to measure how long it takes a lamb to get up after lambing and how long it takes to start suckling.

“My point is with sire-referenced lambs you don’t have any problems because they have smaller heads and are easier to lamb.”
 
Despite celebrating his 70th birthday last year, John is still determined to keep the nucleus of his Suffolk flock going and has employed a student to help out at lambing this year.
 
Both John and Robert are confident Godwick has a healthy future, but know that ever more volatile markets, disease outbreaks  and rising feed costs and general government indifference to farming mean careful management decisions will be more crucial to the farm’s success than ever.