Malting barleys just too good to ignore…
In the first of a series of articles introducing this years barometer growers, Robert Harris climbs the Chilterns to visit our man in the south
CHARLIE Edgley occasionally envies his neighbours on the fertile Oxford plain. But the scenery at Kensham Farms, Cadmore End, helps dispel those thoughts.
A graduate of the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, he has farmed in partnership with his parents since 1985, looking after the arable side.
The free-draining farm has two distinct areas. About three-quarters of the 329ha (813 acres) of cultivated land is owned, consisting of grade three clay with flints over chalk rising to 205m (674ft) above sea-level.
The rest, mainly lighter, grade four soil, is rented or contract-farmed. Each area is split by a valley, so 40% of the land slopes – steeply in places.
Cereals dominate the rotation. The farm is divided into seven blocks to ease management. Two wheats, oats, a further two wheats, barley and oats are the basis, but cropping is fine-tuned to suit each block.
Brigadier is first
Feed wheat – Brigadier this season – takes first slot and Rialto, the first milling variety on the farm for six years, the second.
"Yields never matched feed wheats. But Rialto yielded 3.25t/acre last season, almost matching Brigadier, and sold for £10/t premium," says Mr Edgley.
Milling oats Aintree and Gerald are grown. Estica wheat is being tried after oats on some very poor land; Brigadier is favoured on heavier soils. Intro for feed is the usual barley choice, but on lighter land the malter Angora has been sown for the first time.
"This is our first attempt at malting barley. Premiums are too good to ignore," he says. "It looks a really exciting crop, with good markets and useful new varieties in the pipeline."
Oats are the main break crop and usually end the rotation. "We use sewage sludge from Thames Water and spread it on oat stubble at 70t/ha. That provides a really good entry for wheat."
Winter rape for seed is being grown on 24ha (60 acres) for the second year. "Having never grown the crop before, we were approached by Cargill to grow seed. It made a good premium and gave the best gross margin on the farm last year."
Triticale, which outyields barley on a thin-soiled, rabbit-prone bank, is also grown.
Set-aside has been exported this season (see a forthcoming issue for details of how well it worked). "We need to farm our full area to spread the fixed costs. Im not keen on industrial crops – spring sowings dont always do well here, and planting more winter rape would overstretch us at harvest."
A quick turnround then is vital, he explains. "This is a late farm, so we have a narrow drilling window. I like to be drilled up by early October. Growers in the Thames valley can drill a week later than us and still combine a week in front."
Mr Edgley, one full-time man, and a student do all the harvesting and cultivations. An ex-employee looks after the 1600t farm grain store – the balance is stored on a neighbours farm.
Where volunteers are likely to pose problems, stubbles are gone over twice with heavy 5m (16.4ft) Parmiter discs and rolled to encourage chitting before ploughing.
Everything else is ploughed once the straw is cleared. "We usually chop wheat straw, but everything was baled last year."
A seven-furrow Rabe plough/MF3670 tractor combination makes quick work of the flatter fields whose average field size is 13ha (33 acres). A five-furrow version pulled by a smaller MF3645 tackles the rest. Dry furrows are rolled with the farms only other tractor, an MF3120.
Seed-beds are prepared in front of the 6m Overum Tive air drill, using the biggest tractor and a 6m Wibergs spring tine.
Main grass weeds, ryegrass and wild oats are tackled with foliar sprays. Phosphorus, potash and lime are applied as needed – representative fields from each block are sampled every three or four years.
"Fairly standard" fungicide programmes are used, though Mr Edgley consults with his Profarma adviser on rates. Manganese and copper are standard inputs on light land.
Latest technology is used to counter speed changes on slopes. Mr Edgley has fitted an RDS Delta 3 unit to regulate output from the 1900-litre Knight mounted sprayer. And a new KRM fertiliser spreader has a calibrator system automatically adjusting application rate to forward speed.
Most cultivation equipment is bought secondhand. But Mr Edgley used recent higher profits to update his combine and the smallest tractor. Such decisions are not taken lightly. "We must prepare for a few years of volatility. Thats why I try to sell as much produce as possible on contract to reduce the risk.
"But with buoyant forecasts for world demand, I am optimistic in the longer term. Given the chance, I would like to be farming a couple of hundred acres more by then. But Im sure we can survive as we are." *
• 367ha (907 acres).
• Clay with flints over chalk, chalky loam, some gravel.
7-year average yields:
A well-equipped workshop helps keep Kensham Farms tackle on the move. Abrasive soils take their toll – here, Charlie Edgley (left) and foreman Nigel Rogers replace their worn discs.