FW Awards 2009: Arable Farmer of the Year finalist – Nick Rowsell

There is far more to arable farming than cost-effective production.

That is the approach underpinning Nick Rowsell’s strategies for the 1400ha of mainly chalk land that he farms near Winchester and 290ha 12 miles away at Crux Easton, near Newbury. The latter is thin, relatively unproductive land running to nearly 900ft above sea level.

“Arable farming is not just about growing crops,” says Nick. His operations highlight the importance of finding the most appropriate combination of cropping and stewardship, including both ELS and HLS schemes.

Having exploited the chance in 2006 to buy and immediately sell the offlying farm to fund the purchase of his previously rented 395ha home farm, he now runs eight units with three full-time staff. All are well trained and encouraged to take responsibility.

“The more I can be away the better,” he comments.

Spring barley for seed and malting is the main crop on the land around Winchester. “Our average yield is just over 7t/ha.” But at Crux Easton producing Conservation Grade cereals, including oats and rye, makes more sense. The thin land would never produce good wheat yields, he explains.

Instead he uses the CG-demanded 10% non-cropped area for wildlife enhancement under various stewardship schemes, including HLS.

“We’re not just box-ticking as with the ELS,” he says. “The problem is that at the moment we have only one CG customer – Jordans.”

Grass for seed, once a significant crop on the main farms, was dropped after the 2007 harvest. “We combined 350ha of wheat in five days and then spent the next three cutting 57ha of grass. I was tearing my hair out.”

Instead poppies, 126ha this season, have increasingly figured, especially since a local vining pea group was disbanded in 1997. “We needed a break crop with a market.”

The crop, grown on contract for the alkaloids in its pod walls, is processed into morphine by Johnson Matthey in Scotland. Slugs are rarely a problem in wheats following it, he notes.

“We practise minimum tillage in its truest sense.”

Defined as the minimum needed to achieve suitable seed-beds, that is based on a 4.6m Simba Express, with ploughing where necessary to repair soil structure and suppress grassweeds. Brome is as troublesome as blackgrass.

For variety choices he relies mainly on information from the HGCA. “It’s all there,” he says. “It annoys me when I hear people complaining about the cost of the levy.”

All phosphate and potash fertiliser is variably spread according to Soyl nutrient monitoring, and he uses various sources of information, including grain N analysis and Green Leaf Area assessments, to justify nitrogen inputs. On the shallow soils, where sulphur has been routinely used since the mid-1990s, milling wheats may receive up to 285kg/ha (228 units/acre).

Advice on pesticides, applied from a self-propelled 3000-litre sprayer with Airtec nozzles, comes mostly from Mark Glover of UAP, the firm supplying about 85% of the chemicals.

Machinery policy includes having a new combine each year for a fixed sum. This year’s deal was for a 30ft cut John Deere Hillmaster S690i. The three main tractors, all John Deeres, on contract hire, are being changed every three seasons.

“We used to have a workshop, but we grow crops – we don’t mend tractors,” Nick says.

The farm has 2500t of on-floor storage, with underfloor drying essential for the poppies harvested by contractor using a specially adapted forage harvester.

Leaving aside the CG crops, risk management in marketing is increasingly important, Nick believes.

Depending on the needs of his various owners he mixes forward sales, pool commitments, options and even spot sales to try to counter market volatility.

Farm facts

  • Eight units, all arable, totalling 1690ha
  • About 23% owned, the rest contract farmed
  • Spring barley, winter wheat and oilseed rape, poppies and oats
  • Three full-time staff

What the judges liked

  • “Focus on high premium and niche crops while farming in a challenging area.
  • “Dedicated to maximising income from available resources.
  • “Focused harvesting of environmental payments.”

Three achievements

  • Excellent environmental and conservation ideas while maximising output using LEAF integrated farm management principles
  • Embraced new crop opportunity – poppies – with enthusiasm
  • Willing to delegate responsibility to well-trained team

 

Farmers Weekly Awards 2022

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Farmers Weekly Awards 2022

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