FW Awards 2011: Arable Farmer of the Year finalist – Colin McGregor

Colin McGregor
Coldstream, Berwickshire

The “Three Ps” could be a 1980s pop group, or even a pea co-operative, but for Colin McGregor, it describes how he manages his resources.

It stands for people, precision and plant and his approach has proved successful as the family business maintained yields and quality while expanding the area 10 fold to 2,831ha. He now crops eight farms in the Scottish borders, including 128ha owned, 300ha rented and rest on contract agreements.

Cropping is based on 50-55% wheat, of which 45% is in the first position, oilseed rape, spring beans, vining peas grown for the local co-op Scottish Borders Produce, potatoes and barley.

He has a valued team of seven including full time agronomist David Fuller. His focus is on crop protection and sourcing inputs, where he co-ordinates a buying group with four other farms, gaining benefits from the combined buying power.

Colin has been early to adopt precision farming technology and has been variably applying N, P, K and lime for 14 years. “The benefit for lime alone is a 40-50% saving in its use, which is significant considering that it is not cheap to haul from North Yorkshire.”

For N, P and K, he believes overall usage is the same, but better targeted. “It has helped improve evenness of crops.” This autumn, he plans to extend this variable approach to seed rates.

Another part of his precision farming is the use of RTK since 2006 to eliminate overlaps with cultivations, giving accuracy in machine operations to less than 20mm. “This has reduced cultivation costs by nearly £28/ha.”

Cultivations are based on rotational ploughing prior to spring crops and somesecond wheat on light land with the rest established using non-inversion techniques.

He was also an early pioneer of a one pass oilseed rape establishment technique, with rape following wheat in the rotation. “This was unheard of in Scotland a few years ago,” says Colin.

The latest kit includes two 7m Simba SL’s with band applicators applying a 20:10:0 NPK liquid fertiliser at 120 litres/ha with seed trickled into the bed further back at 45cm row spacings.

“A wider row spacing allows deeper podding on the plant, so we can gain extra yield. Last year, our crop averaged 1.85t/acre and since including seed-bed fertiliser, we have seen a difference in establishment.”

About 90% of the rape area is down to hybrids, including DK Expower, Excalibur, Compass and Cuillin.

His also doesn’t scrimp on inputs for his spring bean crops, viewing it as an important crop. “Many growers view them as a cheap crop, but you have to give them all the inputs they need.”

Aiming for 40 seeds/sq m, his Fuego beans averaged 5.8t/ha last year and was the highest margin crop.

A key factor in the businesses’ growth has been his excellent understanding of his costs, helped by his wife, Jill who looks after the accounts. It has allowed him to increase profits by 134% since 2007 while also investing in plant, such as grain drying and storage.

Part of this increased profit is down to restructuring the potato growing side, which are now grown in collaboration with Greenvale AP. Colin provides the land and does the bed-forming, irrigation and provide loading and unloading from the cold stores.

“This has taken out much of the risk in growing potatoes,” he says.

Value is added where possible with one-third of the wheat area grown for milling and a proportion of feed wheat supplying the high Hagberg fish food market. Beans are exported. A small tonnage of rape is sold for cold-pressing and the oil sold to consumers by Borderfields.

Colin believes the environment is important and even goes as far as having field wildlife margins, even where there is no funding. He is seeking planning permission for a wind turbine to make the farm largely self sufficient in electricity, including potato cold storage.

Farm facts

• Cropping 2,831ha on eight farms

• Mix of owned family farm, rented and contract farmed

• Growing wheat, oilseed rape, spring beans and vining peas

• Potatoes in collaboration with Greenvale AP

• Seven full-time staff – five skilled operators, two yard staff, farm secretary, arable technical manager plus Colin and his wife, Jill

The judges liked

• Crop consistency over a large area

• Early adopter of technology

• Impressive spring bean crops

• Pride in his work and manages contract farms as if his own

• High level of excellence

2011 Farmers Weekly Awards

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