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Benchmarking helps Cotswolds family farm get fitter

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Ed Horton returned to the family farm with improving margins on his mind.

It would be easy to assume that farm benchmarking is only for those who are inherently driven by detailed analysis and number crunching.

But being able to understand your business better to improve productivity and make informed decisions is something every farm would benefit from.

It just so happens that 30-year-old Ed Horton has a clear vision of what he wants to do with the family farm, and benchmarking appeals to his ‘inner geek’. He said:

Coming back home, my objectives are to look at reducing the use of chemistry and cultivations, and to increase gross margins, along with soil health.

Ed has just finished his fifth harvest back at Poulton Fields Farm after completing a Masters degree and working on a mixed farming enterprise at Stow on the Wold.

Attention to detail is what drives him. “I was always very comfortable with day to day farming,” he said. “That’s the bit of the job I found logical and straight-forward.

“But I studied and worked away from the farm to learn the business and economics side. I didn’t have the knowledge and wanted to spend time getting my head around it before making far-reaching decisions that affect our farm.”

To help inform those decisions, Ed is about to carry out his second year of benchmarking analysis using AHDB’s Farmbench tool, in conjunction with five other farms, facilitated by the local Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG).

He says the process has already confirmed the significant advantages of the system the business employs as well as highlighting a need to make changes to reduce fixed costs and become fitter for the future.

Quality over quantity

Ed farms with his father, Charles, at Bibury near Cirencester, with two full-time and two part-time staff.

They subscribe to a long, diverse rotation of winter and spring crops, generally focusing on quality or local markets.

The 1,800 hectares harvested this year included feed, biscuit and milling wheats, winter feed and spring malting barley, winter oilseed rape, beans, milling oats, maize for a neighbouring dairy farm and triticale on a seed contract.

“Our soil is a limiting factor on our home farm that was part of the benchmarking group,” Ed explained,

We have about six inches of soil then bedrock, so we aim for quality or crops we can use at home.

Yields are still good, though, with five-year wheat averages touching 8 t/ha and 7.5 t and 6.5 t for feed and malting barley, respectively

Ed focuses on the arable side of the business, while Charles manages the livestock, which include 400 pedigree Shorthorns destined for Morrisons and about 800 breeding ewes, a combination of pedigreeLlanwenogs and Texel-x-Mules.

A crucial element of the business is a pig finishing unit, which is let out to a producer, providing Ed and Charles with a huge supply of slurry from 5,000 pigs.

Ed said: “We spread 4.5m gallons of slurry a year through an umbilicalsystem.

It’s a management nightmare but significantly improves our gross margins. We have not had to buy P and K for the home farm for 15 years.”

Learning through numbers

Ed is keen to try different techniques that could improve margins. Different doesn’t always mean new, though.

This year, he deployed sheep to graze a block of very forward wheat after maize, rather than applying a growth regulator and fungicide.

“It’s an old technique of keeping on top of a forward crop – graze it back to the floor to shock it into producing more tillers and root mass, and get rid of the latent septoria in the base,” he explained.

“We spent just £38/ha on fungicides and growth regulator and got a 1.25t/ha increase in yield.”

The confidence to try out alternative strategies was shown to be one of the strengths of the business when Ed got involved in AHDB’s Farmbench tool. “You can enter as much detail as you like on the platform.

Being a geek, I put in data by crop and by variety because some are direct drilled, others are low disturbance or min-tilled. I wanted to see how they differed,” he said.

“We came out as very strong on our fertiliser and chemical spend, as we would expect to. We spread pig slurry and we don’t use insecticides.

Our fungicide spend is tight. I look at a variety’s disease rating way before yield, so on variable costs we looked good on paper.”

But with 400 ha of contracting work to carry out every year, Ed found his fixed costs were higher than others in his group.

“Our contracting customers tell us how they want crops established so we keep quite a lot of cultivation equipment in the business. “Through Farmbench, I could see we were spending more than others in the group on plant and machinery and that made me rethink our tractor replacement policy.

“This year, one of our frontline tractors had clocked up 5,000 hours and was technically up for renewal but we decided against it because I looked at the replacement costs and we will keep it for another 1,000 or 2,000 hours.

“Farmbench was very useful because, otherwise, I would have carried on regardless.”

Change of approach

With a keen interest in the grain, beef, lamb and pork markets, Ed is using the information he has gleaned from the process of benchmarking to inform decision-making.

The farm has already made plans to cut back on sheep because of the risk posed to the lamb market by Brexit.

“Lambing 800 ewes is tough going and the cattle are a lot more manageable from a staffing point of view, so we will grow the beef side and reduce sheep numbers,” Ed explained.

A neighbour fattens 4,500 lambs and is going to take over themanagement of our temporary grass and fodder crops to allow us to continue the benefit, minus the risk.

He has also spotted an opportunity to grow triticale to provide a domestic stock of seed for a customer who currently replies on imports.

Repeating benchmarking

An autumn meeting of the benchmarking group is being organised and Ed is looking forward to seeing how the year 2 figures look, having made changes to his business, and others to theirs.

“It will be interesting to see how everyone has done things, this year, and whether they have made a big impact on their gross margins.

“None of us want each other to do badly. It’s about learning about your own business and learning from each other.”

POULTON FIELDS FARM

  • Located at Bibury, Gloucestershire
  • 1,800 ha of arable plus 200 ha of grassland
  • Contracting farming a further 400 ha
  • Growing wheat, barley, beans, oats, oilseed rape, maize, turnips and triticale
  • 400 pedigree beef Shorthorn cattle
  • 800 breeding sheep
  • Let building housing 5,000 pigs
  • Self-advised agronomy
  • Sandy brash soils with some clay

Want to find out more?

An AHDB Horizon document has been produced outlining the characteristics of top performing farms.

It details what they do differently to others and highlights how apparently similar farms can record drastically different performance. See more

In the past year AHDB has worked with 16 business on Farmbench through a Facilitation Fund.

If you are interested in learning more about how it can help your business go to ahdb.org.uk/Farmbench.