Added-value crops help manage risk on variable soils

Growing crops for added value premiums allows Northampton farmer Rick Davies to offset the extra income against the effects of cropping highly variable soils.

With 404ha of combinable crops being grown across a range of soil types, yields can be limited on the lighter, drought-prone soils in dry years, while flooding is also a threat to output on around 80-100ha of land that adjoins the River Ouse.

Soil variability is part of the planning process at the new Northamptonshire AHDB Monitor Farm.

See also: Big and small arable monitor farmers face the same challenges

On the flood plain land, silt over gravel and sandy gravel soils predominate, while other soil types like sandy clay loam, brash and clay loams are found across the two farm sites operated by MTH Davies from its Clifton Reynes base.

Given those constraints and recent unpredictable weather patterns, Mr Davies is clear about his cropping strategy. “We can’t always get the highest yields here, so we need the premiums.”

Farm facts: MTH Davies, Newton Lodge Farm

  • 404ha
  • 242ha milling wheat, 55ha oilseed rape, 64ha spring barley, 17ha grass, 26ha margins/mid tier
  • Five-year average yields: first wheat 10.30t/ha, second wheat 9.85t/ha, oilseed rape 3.69t/ha and spring barley 7.77t/ha
  • 6,000t of grain storage plus continuous flow drier
  • Claydon 4.8m drill, often used in conjunction with a 3m Dyna-drive
  • Contract Avadex (tri-allate) spreading
  • Red Poll cattle and box beef scheme

Cropping strategy

As a result, his winter wheat is all in Group 1 milling varieties, his high-oleic, low-linolenic (Holl) oilseed rape is grown for the specialist oil market and his spring barley is on contract to Budweiser.

“It has worked well for us in most years,” he says. “The only crop under review is the Holl oilseed rape – the premium dropped right back from £25/t to £8/t last year, making it borderline. The £90/ha cost of the seed makes it hardly worth doing if there’s insufficient reward.”

Another consideration is that his oilseed rape yields have dropped in the past two years. “Whether that’s due to the Holl varieties, or a combination of other factors, I’m not certain.

“To check, we have also got some conventional oilseed rape varieties, Campus and Elgar, growing alongside the Holl type V316OL, to see if they can do any better.”

Alternative choices

An alternative could be high-erucic acid (Hear) oilseed rape, with its £60/t premium, he says. “That figure includes the oil bonus. The seed cost is £70/ha, which is slightly better than Holl seed.”

All of the winter wheat at Newton Lodge Farm is in Group 1 milling wheat varieties, which include Gallant, Crusoe, Skyfall and Zyatt. The farm has a good track record of hitting the full milling specification and supplies local firm Heygates.

“The variety mix works well,” says Mr Davies. “The oldest variety, Gallant, is useful because its early maturing, so we get it cleared first at harvest.”

On land which is blackgrass-free, he grows two wheat crops, followed by spring barley and then oilseed rape. Where blackgrass is a problem, a first wheat is followed by two successive crops of spring barley, followed by oilseed rape.

“It’s not unknown for us to grow a third wheat,” he says. “But we are looking at widening out the rotations if we can, perhaps bringing in a pulse crop. We’re also going to try a cover crop between the two spring barleys this coming year.”

Spring barley experience

Explorer spring barley is grown on contract for Budweiser through Glencore and suits the farm well. As well as being very competitive against blackgrass, it has yielded as much as 9.8t/ha in the past.

“It tillers well, so with the right seed rate we find that it really helps with blackgrass. The ground is moved in the autumn, so that we can go straight in with our Claydon drill in the spring.”

“This year, it went in a month too late. The upside of that is reduced expenditure on the crop, especially herbicides, but the delay is likely to have reduced yields. We’ll see when the combine goes through.”   

Diversification

Being a fourth-generation family farm has given Rick Davies and his father the time and energy to pursue other enterprises and make the most of diversification opportunities.

Time and money spent converting old pig buildings mean that 14 office lets and four light industrial units are an integral part of the business, with 52 container storage units being a more recent addition.

In addition, a box beef scheme makes best use of the farm’s 25 Red Poll cattle, which are extensively grazed, while a contract Avadex (tri-allate) spreading operation has been set up by Mr Davies and covers the local area.

His brother George runs a separate turf business from Newton Lodge Farm, building it up over the past 18 years to include three depots, six lorries and 17 staff.