31 May 1996

HOW HOST STAYS AHEAD

The Nevile Estate in Lincs is the host farm for this years Cereals Event. It is run by Aubourn Farming, a young but rapidly expanding management and advisory company with a practical outlook.

Robert Harris examines its farming policy

OBTAINING the latest information and putting it into practice efficiently and cheaply are key aims of the Cereals 96 host farmer.

Philip Wynn, managing director of Aubourn Farming, maintains that approach helps him to keep his farming business thriving in the 1990s.

A trials programme has been set up to offset the lack of new product information. Fewer outside independent trials are being carried out, with the slack often being taken up by distributors. Results are either commercially sensitive or have their price, says Mr Wynn.

Some 20 trials sites are in place on the farms the company manages. They include variety trials, seed rate trials, and work with existing and new chemicals. The company is also working with Morley Research Centre on a series of sugar beet herbicide programmes.

"It is important to develop links with a number of research organisations and manufacturers to stay ahead of the game so that we can put the latest thinking into practice on our own and our clients farms," he says.

To do that successfully, Mr Wynn has built up a management team of seven over the past few years with a wealth of practical experience between them. He has been managing farms for 20 years, coming to the Nevile Estate in 1982 after managing a variety of farming enterprises in the south-east. He set up Aubourn Farming four years later.

Since then, the companys client base has grown to 20,000ha (50,000 acres). The Nevile estate and several other holdings covering 7700ha (19,000 acres) are directly managed by Mr Wynn and two managers. Combine crops and sugar beet are the main concerns, though over 600 cows, pigs, sheep and beef are also included.

A farm business adviser has clients on a further 4850ha (12,000 acres). The crop management and group buying service, established in 1992, now employs three agronomists on 15,400ha (38,000 acres), including the managed farms. Most clients are based in Lincs, Yorks and Notts.

A team approach is vital, he maintains. "People are a fundamental part of farming, something which many businesses fail to realise. Many farms are run on a dictatorial basis and suffer from poor staff management and motivation."

All staff employed on the farms are given responsibility, he stresses. "That is absolutely paramount. They know what standards and targets are expected and how to achieve them. Empowering people with trust gives them more job satisfaction and translates enthusiasm, commitment and responsibility right through the business. That enables us to reap the rewards of greater efficiency."

The farms demand it, he maintains. Much of the land under Aubourn Farmings control, including the Nevile estate, is not prime agricultural land. It is light and drought prone, so Mr Wynn aims to maximise returns, rather than yield.

Fixed costs are kept under tight control by careful budgeting. "In good years its very easy to let these get out of control," he says. "Thats a mistake. The volatility of our farming industry is unbelievable. We have to remember change, which can have an enormous impact on our business, could be just around the corner."

Machinery costs are kept as low as possible. "You wont see rows of redundant tackle on any of our farms," says Mr Wynn. "We buy basic, strong no nonsense machines which have to work hard but are relatively cheap to run."

Cultivation equipment which offers a quick fix but at a price, like power harrows, is avoided, even on heavy land. "We rely on good soil management to reduce costs."

Some machinery is bought second-hand, like the combines. "We overhaul them in the winter. I dont believe the operating costs are any higher on some of our five-year-old machines than they would be on a new one."

Extra equipment is bought as needed, and sold once it becomes surplus. "I have no qualms about using contractors, hiring or buying in machinery when we need it. That way we dont impair our long-term fixed cost policy, nor do we reduce the potential of the following crop."

Last season, Mr Wynn bought an artic tractor specifically for subsoiling. "We had dry soils, and it was too good an opportunity to miss. Once the work was done, I sold it. The net cost was about £2000, but thats cheap compared to the cost of keeping one on the farm as insurance."

Variable costs are monitored regularly through the season. Targets are set as a guide rather than a barrier. "Seasons and situations change, and we always bear in mind that we are looking to achieve optimum margins, not minimum input costs."

Buying power helps to keep costs down. "Given the size of the business, we can negotiate pretty good deals on fertiliser and chemicals. All the savings are passed on to our farms and clients."

There are no volume agreements with any chemical manufacturer, Mr Wynn points out. "We look for the right product at the right price, regardless of its source. Our agronomists offer independent, decommercialised advice."

Producing crops is tricky enough – selling them is more of a lottery given the increasingly volatile markets, he says.

"UK prices are being manipulated by the sentiment of fund managers across the world. No-one can honestly say any more that they sold all their grain at the highest price. You just cant tell when the next change will come."

With 30,000t of cereals, oilseeds and pulses to market each year he keeps a close eye on the trade. "We take a continual view. I receive market information every day, and sell right through the season. By building a relationship with a few key people, I hope to get it right most of the time."


Nevile Estate

&#8226 Farmed area 1088ha (2690 acres)

Cropping (ha)

Winter wheat447

Winter barley48

Spring barley142

Winter beans40

Peas18

Oilseed rape88

Sugar beet142

Grass36

Set-aside* 107

Cereals 9612

*95 permt, 12 rotl

&#8226 Rainfall 635mm (25in).

&#8226 Soils – mix of clay, gravel, limestone brash, peat, sand.

Aubourn Farming relies on a team approach, unlike many farms which are run on a dictatorial basis, says Mr Wynn. Trust is a vital element.

Fixed costs are kept under tight control – Philip Wynn knows arable farmings fortunes could change.