Smart and affordable farming solutions can give farmers insights needed to get more out of less. Philip Case reports
In this week’s Farmers Weekly, we are exploring how smart farming techniques can benefit your business.
In these challenging times for the sector, what could be smarter than saving money without sacrificing the bottom line?
We asked 12 farmers and farm leaders to share some of the smart decisions they have taken and explain their business benefits.
1 ‘Care of our soils is paramount’
Simon Beddows, farm manager, Coppid Farming Enterprises LLP, Dunsden, Berkshire
“There is only a limited amount that I can do to save money on my variable crop costs without losing output.
“There are fixed costs which can also be thought of as variable, such as machinery and cultivations.
“We already operate a min-till system so, rather than follow the current trend of selling all our machinery and going to direct drilling, I will look to reduce cultivation depth where possible to save on fuel, time and wearing parts.
“If zero-till and cover crops means expensive seed mixes and slug pellets then I’m not sure if that actually adds to the bottom line. However, care of our soils is paramount to future profitability.”
2 ‘Question everything that goes on the crop’
Dr Fiona Burnett, head of crop and soil systems, Scotland’s Rural College
“Pesticide costs are high but obvious savings can be made by thinking in integrated ways.
“Reduce the risk of soil and trash diseases through clever use of break crops and greening measures and pick varieties that have good resistance to the main diseases you get on the farm.
“Walk your crops and use online sources of crop health advice to track disease levels in season and further tune your inputs to suit that risk.
“Question and justify everything that goes on the crop. Does it really need that copper spray if you’ve never seen the problem? Does it really need a four-way fungicide mix when a simple two-way would do all you need?”
3 ‘Be more cunning than a fox’
Colin Rayner, director, J Rayner & Sons Ltd, Berkyn Manor Farm, Berkshire
“To survive you must be smarter than the most cunning fox. You must be better with accounts than you are as a farmer and from that point of view you’ve got to keep a close eye on suppliers, ensuring they don’t overcharge and get their invoices in too quickly.
“Similarly, ensure customers pay on time and correctly – get your invoices to them quickly.
“I’ve found that chemical costs can be reduced by introducing longer rotations, growing crops requiring less chemical input and reintroducing the plough – work rates may be slower but use of chemicals will be lower.
“More generally, I’d advise other farmers not to just do what their neighbours are doing and to ensure they change their approach if they lost money last year – don’t just do the same thing next year.”
4 ‘We share machinery’
Michael Seals, livestock and arable farmer, chairman Animal Health & Welfare Board England, Hall Farm, Ashbourne, Derbyshire
“Every business strives to become more efficient. On my medium-sized arable/livestock farm my biggest cost has to be machinery, both depreciation and running with the added problem of operators.
“We have found that by working together, three of us can have a full range of equipment, with the trained labour to operate it and the added benefit of reduced costs.
“This isn’t a machinery ring or contract arrangement, best described as a syndicate, we set a price or cost of use which genuinely covers use and replacement.
“It means we can have, bigger up-to-date equipment, trained operators and the extras such as GPS steering, which individually we could not afford.”
5 ‘Weigh animals and use yield maps’
Adrian Ivory, ex-Farmers Weekly Farmer of the Year, beef and arable farmer, Strathisla Farms, Perthshire
“Farmers should calculate their costs of production, if they don’t already know them.
“I would recommend cattle farmers weigh their cows to help save money by giving the right dosages of wormer, vaccination etc.
“It also means you can calculate the least and most efficient cows by working out the weaning percentage of the calf to cow ratio. This allows you to get rid of the least efficient animals and produce more from the most efficient.
“By weighing animals, you will know if you are producing the finished animal to the right weight specification rather than guessing.
“For the arable, try using yield maps from combines to work out where ecological focus areas should be on your least productive land. This will prevent throwing money at areas which are losing you money.”
6 ‘Use a written formula for each field’
Rob Gardner, farm manager, Manor Farm, Upton Grey, Hampshire
“It is essential to get good crop establishment and be diligent, especially when crop prices are low.
“Few people have a written formula for each field, but maybe more should? Paying more attention to detail means you are less likely to lose what you have planted.
“When crops fail, we sometimes blame an act of God. But maybe your seedbed wasn’t good enough, seed rates were wrong or you planted the crop too late?
“If you spend an extra £20/ha on cultivations, that’s better than losing £100/ha re-drilling crops.
“Sometimes that extra two to three hours on a tractor can prevent expensive crop failures.”
7 ‘Add diversity and use direct drilling’
David White, Hawk Mill Farms, Little Wilbraham, Cambridge
“I’ve saved money on my farm by reducing establishment costs through direct drilling and by adding diversity to what is growing year round, farming ‘Forever Green’.
“My only cultivation deeper than seeding depth is done with my spade. My tractors now only ever break sweat on a grain trailer.
“An establishment cost reduction of around £95/ha plus cover crop seed at £35/ha gives me £60/ha saving. This is while maintaining average yields.
“Giving blackgrass a position among species it’s not happy growing with helps in its cultural control. This, on top of a diverse rotation with 50% spring cropping and low disturbance drilling, is giving control with reduced herbicide spend.”
8 ‘Work with the bank’
Robert Craig, dairy farmer, farms 1,000 cows across two dairy businesses in Cumbria
“Farmers should consider restructuring their finances. Our business has grown over the years and we have taken out loans for different expansion projects, which needed tidying up.
“Dairy farmers have faced challenging times over the past two years, but some suppliers are willing to share the pain.
“A good business with a good track record can also get a really good deal out of the bank.
“We were carrying quite a big overdraft on an expensive rate. We put some of that debt onto more structured repayment terms and that reduced the overdraft interest by a small fortune.
“We tidied up a lot of our debt and also benefited by paying less interest and paying off the capital earlier. It’s a double win.”
9 ‘Deal with blackgrass more cheaply’
David Felce, LEAF demonstration farmer, regional technical adviser with Agrii, Midloe Grange Farm, Southoe, Cambridgeshire
“We are working with Agrii to try and find systems that deal with blackgrass with fewer solutions coming out of the can.
“We are looking at cultivations to reduce blackgrass and structure the soil to facilitate later drilling.
“Having identified the system to help you achieve the results, try to understand the process of what it is that makes it work. Select the most appropriate cultivation to address both blackgrass and soil structure and then carry out according to soil conditions.
“Can you achieve full inversion when ploughing? Does your drill plant the seed without disturbing the soil and bringing more blackgrass up?
“Finally, how can you put this process in place? If you run a small farm, you may need a very expensive piece of equipment, say the drill. Can you work with a neighbour, buy one and share the cost, or use a contractor?”
10 ‘Research animal diets to cut costs’
Richard Smith, senior farms manager, Daylesford Organic Ltd /JCB Farms, Gloucestershire
“Our farm is predominantly about the production of livestock – dairy, beef and sheep.
“The biggest tip I could give fellow producers is to understand the mineral and trace element needs of your animals.
“We now use boluses in all of our ruminant livestock and the effects have been very positive, scanning percentages are up 10% and the general health status improved across the board, so resulting in decreased vet bills and livestock that performs to its true potential.
“The use of general purpose minerals supplied in bags can be costly and ineffective.
“Research which trace elements your stock are hungry for and buy the right bolus. I noticed a dramatic improvement within a month.”
11 ‘Cut pesticide use’
Peter Lundgren, arable farmer, White Home Farm, Bardney, Lincolnshire
“I stopped using neonicotinoid seed dressing some years ago – before talk of a ban – and, with the help of my agronomist, adopted a more sympathetic pesticide regime based on integrated pest management, threshold levels and trying to support populations of beneficial insects.
“The result has been a saving in costs (especially in cereals), a reduction in pesticide use, no slug pellets needed and increased numbers of wildlife, including partridges.
“Given the concern about bee populations and the need to keep the public supporting farming through the Brexit negotiations, it’s good to find that doing the ‘right thing’ and adopting a more sympathetic pesticide policy can actually save money.”
12 ‘Rethink your winter feed policy’
Marc Jones, ex-Farmers Weekly Young Farmer of the Year, Trefnant Hall Farm, Powys
“Our sheep enterprise will always be affected by things we can’t control, such as the weather. But our aim is to improve continuously when these elements are taken out.
“We have decided to switch to growing and grazing fodder beet to out-winter the ewes on this year instead of swedes.
“We grew the crop last year to out-winter dairy heifers and had some spare to winter some sheep on the crop. We found the crop yielded 23,000kg of dry matter per hectare compared with about 8,000kg of dry matter per hectare for the swedes.
“The crop is more expensive to grow (£825/ha before rent, compared with £350/ha for swedes), due to the extra yield. But we have found that the cost to winter a sheep is similar at £4.50/ewe.
“We are now growing almost two-thirds less crop, which allows us to stock that spare ground with more sheep.”