CHRIS DOWSE, farm manager on Sir Richard Sutton”s Settled Estates near Market Rasen, Lincs, is an ardent conservationist, but even he is not looking forward to wading through the newly released Entry Level Stewardship scheme guidance notes.

“I”ve set aside this weekend to plough through them,” says Mr Dowse. But because some of the estate is under organic conversion, he will have even more reading matter than most farmers.

“The normal book is 113 pages and the organic one is 159!”

However, he is confident that the estate will qualify for enough points to get the 30/ha (12/acre) payment. “We will definitely be applying for ELS and we will be definitely be going for the maximum of 30 points/ha on all of our land.

 “To be perfectly honest we have no option. We have to do that to maximise our payments and we will be looking seriously at the details of the higher level scheme when they are published.”

Another document demanding Mr Dowse”s attention is the new SP5 form that will be used to claim the single farm payment and replaces the old IACS forms. The deadline is the same – May 16 – and, after a brief look, he is fairly confident that there shouldn”t be too many complications.

The estate grows vining peas so will need to apply for vegetable authorisations to be able to claim SFP on the land used for the specialist crop. But these will be awarded on the basis of the acreage grown in 2003 and, as Mr Dowse is planning to plant the same area this season, he is not too concerned.

One other area he is going to look into is the possibility of making a claim from the national reserve. A hardship claim has already been submitted because the knock-on effect of the foot-and-mouth crisis hit the estate”s sheep enterprise, but 800 acres of land were purchased part-way through the SFP reference period (2000-2002) and will not qualify for the full historic payment. “We are working on this.”

Despite February being one of the wettest in recent history, the autumn herbicide spray programme is up to date and all the required phosphate dressing has been applied. Potash spreading is also well under way, although strong winds have hampered progress slightly.

soil mapping

The levels of potash and phosphate needed are determined by using precision farming firm Soyl”s system that uses a combination of soil mapping and GPS technology to apply exactly the right amount of nutrient in the right place.

 “On P and K we estimate we are saving about 5/acre not taking into account any uplift in yield,” says Mr Dowse, who is so pleased with the system he is planning to trial it this season for nitrogen application on 100ha (247 acres) of the estate”s light soils and a similar area of heavier land.

Soyl will use satellite images to calculate the amount needed based on the leaf area index of the crop. The details will then be punched into a control box in the tractor cab and this will switch the flow of nitrogen on and off depending on need.

Simon Parrington, Soyl”s managing director, says the nitrogen system costs 6/ha (2.40/acre) and in trials has improved gross margins by 15/ha (6/acre).

 precision

Mr Dowse reckons precision farming methods like this will be important to ensure variable costs are kept to a minimum. “This is vital stuff, we will have to maximise our return from nitrogen. It is unsustainable to keep throwing inputs at low yielding land.”

Less nitrogen in the wrong place will also benefit the environment, he says. “There might well come a time when everybody is required to apply fertiliser on a variable basis.”

If the trial is a success it will be extended to all of the estate”s wheat, which accounts for about 1010ha (2500 acres) of a total 2630ha (6500 acres) of arable cropping. The proportion under wheat has fallen since Mr Dowse decided to drop second wheats, but he says this philosophy may need revisiting because the return from the pulse crops grown instead is likely to be very poor under decoupling.

 As expected, a number of objections has been received regarding the estate”s proposed 16,500t grain store. Most concern extra traffic and the impact of such a large building, but Mr Dowse is confident the reality will not match up to the protesters” fears.

 “They are valid concerns, but we are at pains to explain to people why they shouldn”t be worried.” For example, Mr Dowse says some were worried about light pollution during the night, but as the site will not operate 24 hours this will not be an issue.

The local planning authority should be releasing its verdict sometime in April.

andrew.shirley@rbi.co.uk