Youngest-ever Duchy of Cornwall tenant switches to precision farming

Ally Hunter Blair is a young man in a hurry. The youngest-ever tenant of a Duchy of Cornwall farm is trying out new crops, embracing precision farming and working on a diversification plan ahead of Brexit.

He is also moving to strip-tillage for his autumn-sown crops to conserve moisture on his light sandy Herefordshire soils, throwing in cover crops to improve the organic matter as he moves away from traditional ploughing.

See also: Dorset grower plans for second season with soya despite mediocre yield

Farm operations are being streamline to make his 200ha mainly arable farm bordering the winding River Wye a largely one-man operation, while his 82-year old father still lends a hand with the farm accounts.

Weir End Farm (200ha)

  • Winter wheat – 40 ha
  • Oilseed rape – 40ha
  • Malting spring barley – 60ha
  • Soya beans – 15ha
  • Sugar beet – 15ha
  • Permanent grassland – rest

With a post-Brexit world of lower farm subsidies looming, he realises that there is a need for non-farming income and this is where horse riding and glamping on the farm come in.

“When we lose subsidies we are going to have to diversify as we are still going to have to support two families,” he tells Farmers Weekly.

After marrying last year, his wife is now in charge of developing a horse-riding business, while their first luxury camping structure will be unveiled next year for their first paying glamping guests.

Precision farming

The primary business will still be the farm and he certainly had a baptism of fire when he took over the tenancy from his father when aged 25 in the spring of 2012 as it virtually rained for the rest of that year!

Undeterred, he soon became obsessed with precision farming and a switch to 24m tramlines from 18m with a RTK steering system was soon made, leading to big savings in agrochemical sprays at Weir End Farm, close to Ross-on-Wye.

“The precision approach helped save 8% in chemical costs and it ending up with us sending some chemicals back,” recalls Mr Hunter Blair, now aged 31. This first-year chemical saving helped pay for the self-steering system.

Variable rates

The next move was switching to variable rate phosphate and potash applications, which helped more than halve his potash use even on his light potash-hungry soils, while variable seed rates are coming soon to the farm.

“For us, precision farming has improved our accuracy, and also saves us money and time,” he says.

For the future, a newly purchased one-pass strip-tillage drill will arrive next spring, and the 3m Mzuri Pro-til chosen will allow direct drilling for autumn-sown crops and still can be used for spring drilling following winter ploughing.

His biggest problem on the light riverside sandy land he farms is drought, so he is looking to maintain soil moisture by reducing cultivations while using cover crops and sheep grazing to boost his soil’s organic matter.

Strip-till drill 

He estimates his old plough-and-drill system cost him £120/ha to establish crops, and while he cut that to £70/ha with his current min-tillage system, the new strip-drill should get that down to below £50/ha. Fortunately, there is no blackgrass on the farm and Mr Hunter Blair wants it to stay that way.

Ploughing will still take place ahead of spring crops, but he is hoping to cut that to one in five years from one in three years in a five-year rotation comprising winter wheat, oilseed rape, malting spring barley, soya beans and sugar beet – the latter two being novel choices for south Herefordshire.

It was a trip to South America during 2012 to see the vast areas of soya beans being grown in Uruguay that convinced him of the crop’s potential, especially with the likes of Waitrose keen on home-grown protein sources.

The supermarket chain is eradicating imported genetically modified (GM) soya bean-fed meat, milk and eggs from its supply chain in favour of animals fed on home-grown conventionally bred protein crops.

Soya beans in the west

Soya beans © Richard Stanton

It was 2017 before he was brave enough to take the plunge with 6ha of soya beans that yielded 2t/ha, and in 2018 his doubled area of 13ha averaged 2.5t/ha, with one field managing 3t/ha.

So a bigger area of 16ha is planned for spring 2019 with Mr Hunter Blair’s enthusiasm for the low-input nitrogen-fixing crop unabated.

He has been lucky with two dry seasons and relatively early harvests on 17 September in 2017 and 10 September this year, while the crop gives a number of advantages as it can be drilled late during May, it improves the soil structure, fixes nitrogen and gives a good entry for winter wheat.

“The crop fits our farm, it is cheap to grow with the only variable costs being seed and one pre-emergence herbicide, so it helps the cash flow,” he says.

This helps with his strategy of trying to split the autumn- and spring-drilled crops 50:50 to spread the workload for his one-man operation.

Sugar beet survivor 

Sugar beet is still grown on the farm, even after the last of British Sugar’s West Midlands sugar beet plants closed in 2007 as the crop grows well on his light land and finds a ready market at local anaerobic digester plants and for animal feed.

“It’s a good crop to grow and can be lifted late in the season once it has bulked up, the only restriction is that it can not be grown on our riverside land, which is liable to flooding,” he says.

Cover crops arrived on the farm in 2014 with a radish/oats mixture being grazed off by the 75-strong ewe flock before being ploughed under in preparation for spring drilling.

This spring he will be leaving the plough in the shed and spraying off what remains of his cover crops with glyphosate before strip-till drilling soya directly into the ground.

It’s all part of his philosophy to produce as much food as possible as cheaply as possible, and that’s why he is keen to keep labour to a minimum.

“We need to rely less on subsidy and diversify to make more money out of areas of the farm we can not use. We love farming, but we also enjoy other things such as horses and glamping, and these are our first diversification moves,” he adds.