17 July 1998

BEST PLAN IMPRESSES THE JUDGES

Andrew Ritchie, the winner of the 1998 Farm Planner of

the Year competition, produced the best development

plan in the contests seven-year history. David Cousins

explained its recommendations and appeal to the judges

THE winning development plan in the 1998 Farm Planner of the Year Competition advocated getting rid of the beef, expanding the sheep, growing more wheat and joining the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.

It was put together by Andrew Ritchie, who has just finished a three-year farm business management course at Wye College in Kent. Not only was it the clear winner of this years contest, but the judges also reckoned it was the best presented and argued farm plan in the competitions seven-year history.

Andrew was one of six finalists in the 1998 contest. All are full or part-time students and their task was straightforward – decide how 391ha (970-acre) Wilmaston Farms in Herefordshire should develop over the next five years to maximise its profits and safeguard its future.

Livestock

Andrew produced a radical plan for livestock. With no immediate end to the beef crisis in sight, he argued that the farm should drop its beef enterprise and expand its sheep flock.

At the moment, the progeny of the 100-cow suckler enterprise are finished as 12-month bull beef and 18-month heifers. Bull beef margins are £120 a head and therefore reasonably profitable, but heifers (which get no headage payments) are currently losing the farm money.

The farms 850-ewe flock, on the other hand, is much more profitable, he argues. Split into early and spring lambing flocks, with ewe lambs also reared as replacements, they enjoy a margin of £600-£700/ha (£240-280/acre).

He argues that by axing the beef enterprise 69ha (170 acres) of grassland would be released. At a stocking rate of 17 ewes/grass ha and 30 ewe lambs/grass ha, this could support an extra 980 ewes and 200 ewe lambs. Selling the suckler cow quota would comfortably pay for the extra sheep quota needed.

Existing buildings could cope with the increase in flock size, but extra casual labour would be needed at lambing.

Arable

Wilmaston Farms arable enterprises consists of 89ha (220 acres) of winter wheat, 36ha (89 acres) of winter barley, 30ha (74 acres) of spring beans, 28ha (69 acres) of oilseed rape, 12ha (30 acres) let for potato-growing, 16ha (39 acres) of herbage seeds and 10ha (25 acres) of set-aside.

Andrew advised keeping the crop rotation the same until the year 2000, then dropping oilseed rape, which is expected to suffer a 31% cut in support under Agenda 2000 proposals and will therefore lose much of its attraction.

The spare land could be used to grow more winter wheat while still keeping to the rotational requirements of a four-year break between potatoes and a four-year break between spring beans.

These changes, argues Andrew, would increase the arable margin by £5030. He concedes that harvest and cultivation would have to be spread over a tighter time period, but points out that with baling and ploughing already done on contract, there should be enough manpower available to cope.

At the moment Wilmaston Farms rents out a relatively small area of land to local farmers for potato growing.

For the 1998 cropping year this amounts to 12ha (30 acres). Rents of about £750/ha (£300/acre) look, on paper at least, very attractive. Andrew proposes to boost this to 20ha (50 acres) to maximise revenue.

Countryside Stewardship Scheme

While the CSS is proving popular with farmers nationally, Wilmaston has so far resisted its charms. But Andrew sees CSS as ideal for the farm.

He suggests planting hedgerows alongside all the farms many shelter belts (45ha/110 acres in total) to improve the habitat for wildlife and game birds. CSS grants of £2/m for hedge planting should cover the establishment costs.

On top of that, 6m (20ft) arable grass margins could be established alongside the shelter belts. These attract a CSS grant of £580/ha (£235/acre) – not too much less than the current average arable margin of £675/ha (£273/acre).

Shoot

Establishing hedgerows and 6m margins next to the shelter belts would boost game bird habitats and allow shooting rights to be let for £7.50/ha (£3/acre) rather than the current £2.50/ha (£1/acre).

At the same time, 15ha (37 acres) of unproductive land on the steepest of the farms banks could be put into the lowland grass management scheme. This attracts a grant of £115/ha (£46/acre) which with lower input costs, should more than compensate for the lower stocking density required by the scheme, he adds.

Diversifications

The farm currently has a block of 14 stables, of which only two are used. These could form the basis of a livery-type diversification, Andrew reckons.

While the most profitable option would be for the farm to run a livery yard itself, it does not have the skills or time to do the job properly and could not justify employing a full-time yard manager. A better option might be to let out the stables to an individual, possibly an event rider, who could make use of all of of them.

CONTINUING THE MANAGEMENT THEME

Part of the winners prizes, courtesy of the Midland Bank, is free entry to the IagrM national management conference – in November. This is open to everyone, whether or not they are members of the institute.The conference takes place on Sun, Nov 15 and

Mon, Nov 16 at the Cheltenham- Gloucester Moat House.

For further details contact Philip James, Institute of Agricultural Management, PO Box 236, Reading RG6 6AT

(0118-9351458).

What the judges thought

There was little disagreement among the contests judges over the identity of this years winner. They said Andrew Ritchies submission was logical, well reasoned, to the point and his conclusions were based on hard factual evidence.

But would farm manager Simon Quan and managing agent Ian Peill be taking his advice to heart and making changes based on it?

Beef to sheep

"We have talked about reducing the beef herd and Andrew makes some very valid points here," says Mr Peill. "However, with the beef we feel we have taken the bad medicine as an industry and that we are now on a rising plane. It is probably not the time to abandon ship now."

Mr Quan agrees that there is considerable logic to Andrews decision to drop beef and expand sheep, but he stresses that the particular grazing problems at Wilmaston make him loath to put on too many more sheep.

It is the feeling that the beef industry has passed its blackest point that makes Wilmaston Farms adamant about sticking with beef. If the export ban is never lifted, it could be a different matter though, adds Mr Quan.

Future improvements to the beef enterprise will revolve around trying different breeds and trying to get more profitability out of the heifers.

Arable

"It looks like the decision may have been made for us already," points out Mr Peill, referring to the predicted drop in support payments for oilseed rape. He and Mr Quan say that Andrews suggestion to gently boost the acreage of land let out for potato growing from 12-20ha (30-50 acres sounds realistic, although the availability of good potato contracts and rotational constrains limit it from rising much above 20ha.

Countryside Stewardship Scheme

Mr Peill says that, while the farm had entertained the notion of putting land into the CSS, the financial benefits had never in the past appeared to be sufficient to make it a viable option. However the trend towards increasing aid for environmental benefits may alter this.

"I think this report has concentrated our minds and we will give some serious thought to Countryside Stewardship," he says. There are some obvious potential drawbacks, too, Mr Quan points out, including the loss of income on the 6m margins and the reduction in capital value of the farm if some land is in CSS.

One obvious benefit would be on fields at Wilmerston that adjoin watercourses. Here, a 6m strip has to be left unsprayed anyway, allowing weeds to get into the edge of the field. A 6m wide arable margin composed of non-invasive grasses could ease the problem.

Shoot and stables

Andrews comments about improving the profitability of the shoot and turning the redundant stables into a livery yard were well-argued and logical. But two factors – neither of which he could really be expected to know about – make them less attractive than they seem.

One is geography. The farm is to the south-west of Hereford, an area of sparse population and few big towns. So the livery stables, which have been tried on other local farms, would probably struggle to get enough customers, say Mr Quan and Mr Peill. Increasing the potential of the shoot is limited by the exposure of the woods to prevailing SW winds and the presence of a large block of forestry next door.

"If you could pick the farm up and put it down at the end of the M50 it would be a different matter," says Mr Quan. The other is the nature of the farm itself. "If this was an owner-occupied farm with a wife or daughter who was interested in helping with the shoot or the horse side, many of these diversifications could work well," says Mr Peill.

"But if we want to do these things, we would have to employ someone and possibly find them a cottage to live in as well. It is the difference between being able to come in fresh to a farm as an outsider and make sweeping changes and managing an ongoing situation. We have considered small offices and file storage and converted some of the loose boxes. However we would need to be convinced of the demand before undertaking capital expenditure."

Map and left: The striking feature of Wilmaston Farms is its elevation (130-300m). Arable crops grow on the lowest and highest fields, but in between is a large area of steeply-sloping permanent pasture.

Andrew Ritchie (Wye College) recommended that Wilmaston Farms get rid of its beef herd,

boost sheep numbers, grow more wheat and join the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.

Wilmaston Farms manager Simon Quan (left) and agent Ian Peill (right) were impressed with the logic of Andrew Ritchies arguments.