8 March 1996

High rainfall and input care bring good returns

This years south-western barometer farm is rarely short of moisture, hence its high yield from sensible inputs strategy. Andrew Blake reports

WEATHER is the key to profitability at EWH Farms, Martock, Somerset, says Andrew Hebditch, who looks after the 263ha (650 acres) "under the plough" on the family-run unit.

"We are in a wet area," he says. Annual rainfall in 1994 was over 1016mm (40in), though other farms nearby in a "rain shadow" got much less. "We only had 32in last year but we had 8in of that in January." Parts of the farm are often flooded by the river Parrett.

"We are going for all out yield but with a very close eye on costs. It is not a cheap farm input-wise. We are spending a fair bit but can see a good return."

The land, part-rented/part owned, is spread out with some up to seven miles from home-base. It ranges from "heavyish silt" to some thin brash where continuous malting barley is the aim. "The only soils we dont have are blowing sands or peat," he comments.

The farmed area has doubled in the past five years. Mr Hebditch and father, Nick, who runs the 350,000-bird a year broiler unit, would like to take on more land. "The problem is that everyone else wants to do the same and rents are going through the roof."

Only one other man is employed on the arable side and no outside labour is taken on at harvest. "I do all the drilling, fertiliser spreading, spraying and combining," he says. The unit is well equipped with modern tackle – John Deere tractors, Airtec sprayer, MF 34 combine with yield metre and a new Vaderstad Rapid drill – "the best bit of kit we have bought".

"About 100 acres" of contract work is taken on each year. Any expansion would be on the basis of bigger machinery rather than extra staff, he suspects.

There is about 1000t of grain storage, half in bins, half on-floor, and Mr Hebditch does all his own marketing with most of the barley and rape being sold at harvest.

Advice comes from a range of sources, including Arable Research Centres and Velcourt trials and fortnightly visits from Arthur L Hulls, a member of the Association of Independent Crop Consultants.

Variety choice is dictated more by farm experience, based on small field tests, rather than NIAB and other trials. All the wheats are for feed – the threat of a wet harvest makes breadmaking types too much of a risk, says Mr Hebditch.

"If I had listened to NIAB I would no longer be growing Beaver. But it seems to work very well here." The varietys vigorous tillering is especially helpful on fields prone to flooding, he says.

There is no shortage of takers for cereal straw in the swath, and most crops, except oilseed rape, are established after ploughing.

Increasingly he tends to save his own seed. "We are now about half home-saved." Knowing where a particular crop has come from can be quite a plus, he suggests. "Last year the seed houses could not guarantee the quality of Beaver because they had bought on the open market."

Wheats are generally not sown until October for fear of getting them too proud. "But that means we have to keep the seed rates a bit high because we get big problems with slugs." The whole cereal area had to be pelleted after drilling last autumn, he notes.

Rotations depend mainly on soil type, with spring beans, peas and winter oilseed rape – most on set-aside – providing the cereal breaks. Growing industrial rape on set-aside makes little money, admits Mr Hebditch. "But it is better than allowing weeds in."

Cleavers, chickweed, annual meadow grass (if allowed) and blackgrass on the heavy land are main weed problems. And wild oats, a legacy of laxer farming in the past, are "rife".

Current policy is to rein-in autumn treatments and to "spend a bit more in the spring". Cheetah (fenoxaprop), even at quite reduced rates, has done a good job on wild oats provided it is applied early enough, he says.

Cereal fungicides, with Folicur (tebuconazole) well to the fore, are directed mainly at controlling septoria in the wheat. "A fairly comprehensive" growth regulator programme has prevented lodging in the past three years. "We have had a lot of lodging in the past." &#42


EWH Farms 1996 cropping and typical yields

96 areaTypical yield

ha(acres)t/hat/acre)

Winter wheat (Beaver, Hussar, Brigadier)1664109.03.6

Winter barley (Pipkin & Puffin)34856.32.5

Oilseed rape (Apex) (inc set-aside)32803.81.5

Peas (Solara)16405.02.0

Beans (Victor)14355.02.0

Carefully chosen spray treatments, especially growth regulators, are well rewarded on Andrew Hebditchs EWHFarms at Martock in Somerset.