Self-sufficiency is something that Martin Howlett has always tried to attain at Deer Park Farm. But it has taken this year’s unprecedented high oil prices to trigger a change in attitude to both fertiliser inputs and domestic heating facilities.
“On the back of frighteningly high prices for fertiliser we have decided to look at what is really required for our soils, rather than continuing to rely on blanket application of standard compounds,” says Mr Howlett.
He has therefore signed up to Mole Valley Forage Services’ Nutribalancer programme, which analyses soils and provides specialised, targeted fertilisers to optimise grass performance.
“The soil analysis has identified that we’ve failed to keep up with the pH balance, particularly on the permanent pasture, which makes up about half the farm’s grazing.”
With a pH range from 5.2 to 6.3 the grass has not been able to use the full benefit of the fertiliser being added, resulting in hundreds of wasted pounds.
“We have got to address that, so instead of lime we’re going to use calcified seaweed – a far more effective and quicker acting source of calcium,” says Mr Howlett.
Applied at 618kg/ha (250kg/acre) it is £17-£25/ha (£7-£10/acre) cheaper than lime applied at 5t/ha (2t/acre).
“For too long we have not paid enough attention to our soils, which are every farmers’ most valuable asset.”
The soil indices for phosphate and potassium ranged from one to three – so in the autumn Mr Howlett plans to apply specialist compound fertilisers targeted to each field’s requirement, to reach the correct index for next spring’s grass growth.
“The specialist products will cost £300-£400/t – but by targeting the soil’s requirements we will save at least £50/ha (£20/acre),” he says.
“We also won’t be wasting valuable nutrients, and can simply no longer justify putting a standard rate of compound across the farm.” By boosting grass yields he expects to increase stocking rates by 0.6 livestock units/ha (0.25 LUs/acre).
Mr Howlett’s attention to input costs does not stop at fertiliser – he is also planning to install a new biomass boiler to heat the farmhouse and holiday cottages. The farm’s 4ha (10 acres) of miscanthus is soon to reach its first harvest and from next year will be used as a replacement to conventional heating oil.
“Fuel prices are going to stay high so it has to be a realistic option,” says Mr Howlett. The boiler system is likely to cost between £6000 and £10,000, and may attract some grant funding. “With oil prices at 46p/litre and rising it should pay for itself within two or three years.”
This miscanthus, which was planted three years ago on marginal set-aside land, is due to be harvested in the next couple of weeks, and Mr Howlett recently took samples to test for moisture content.
“It has to be below 16% before we can get the contractors in.” Its first harvest is likely to yield about 12.4t/ha (5t/acre) – about 50% of its potential, reached after five or six years, and has been grown on contract to Bical at £45/t.
“Until we get a full crop it won’t be profitable. But it’s a long-term investment, and grown on marginal land the economics still stack up.”
Higher Level Stewardship
Meanwhile, the farm is entering its second year of Higher Level Stewardship, and Mr Howlett has been carrying out a number of improvements. These include new fencing to preserve valued habitats, tree clearance to create a butterfly corridor and new hedgerow and tree planting around a nature trail for the farm’s tipi enterprise.
“We had our first visitors of the season staying in the tipis in early April and have had a lot of interest from schools wanting to visit the farm as well, so it’s nice to have it looking so good.”
Mr Howlett is also hosting Lantra training courses this summer, which will reinstate a number of new Cornish banks on the farm.
“We’re taking a responsible approach to improving the less productive parts of the farm for environmental benefit – which in turn makes it more attractive for our paying guests,” he says. “And at the same time we’re paying more attention to detail on the productive land to make it work harder for us.”