Getting back to basics and widening crop rotations with a focus on improving soil health and the environment is helping one Cotswold estate prepare for a bright future.
Located 20 miles south of the spa town of Cheltenham, the Down Ampney Estate spans about 2,750ha of mostly silty clay loam soils on the edge of the rolling Cotswold hills in Gloucestershire.
Since the estate was sold off along with 11 other Co-operative Group farms in 2014, farm manager James Taylor has been busy overseeing a period of change and investment from new owners the Wellcome Trust, trading as the farming business Farmcare.
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All assets on the estate were reviewed once the sale went through and a huge list of things that needed to be done emerged, Mr Taylor explains.
Gradually the list is shrinking, thanks in part to a wider Farmcare commitment to pump £10m into its farms, to be invested in buildings, equipment, land and enterprise diversity.
Like many farms in Britain, land drainage systems installed in the 1970s are now reaching the end of their useful life and wet patches are starting to crop up.
The estate is in the second year of a decade-long campaign to repair and rejuvenate land drainage. Over the past 18 months every drainage system has been surveyed on the estate, with headland drainage highlighted as the biggest problem.
Mr Taylor says this is not just because machinery has grown larger and heavier over the years, the field margins have expanded too.
As a result, tractors are now turned directly on top of the headland drainage systems, causing issues.
“The bulk of the field drainage systems are actually fine, it is the headlands that we are replacing mainly, which is also cheaper than doing the entire field,” Mr Taylor says.
Down Ampney estate, Gloucestershire
- Estate covers 2,750ha in total, of which 1,410ha is arable
- Another 1,200ha is contract farmed
- Smaller areas of grassland and paddocks are let out for grazing
- Growing wheat, spring barley, oilseed rape, winter and spring beans, spring linseed and maize for AD
- Soil is mostly a silty clay loam over gravel at varying depths
Soils and environment
Other improvements since the farm sale went through include a simple programme of cutting hedges, which had not been cut for about 30 years.
Also, overgrown brambles were cleared from a brook that runs through the estate, with trout numbers flourishing as a result.
There is a clear focus on soil improvement and environmental management at Down Ampney, with the farm entered into the mid-tier countryside stewardship scheme.
“We have 15ha of bird mix and 19ha of legume rich grass leys for two years. We will then direct drill winter wheat into this and then it will go back into a two-year ley again,” says Mr Taylor.
“The two-year ley helps improve soils and control blackgrass, although traditionally we are not bad here for blackgrass. We’ve got organic matter going back into the soils, birds are being fed over the winter from the mixes we put in and it helps the wildlife too.
“You have to treat it as a crop in the rotation, even though you don’t put it through the combine.”
Rather than buying bagged bird mix seed, Mr Taylor buys in the individual components including sunflower, linseed and mustard seed and mixes it in the drill.
The farm has moved over to a flexible direct drilling system to help improve soils and, to a lesser extent, reduce establishment costs.
“We’ve been trying out direct drilling on the farm here for four or five years now. We tried Vaderstads, John Deere’s 750A and so on and eventually went for an 8m Seed Hawk. We keep the plough as a reset button.
“There’s probably 20-30% of our land that we will direct drill each year and then there’s about 20-30% that we will never direct drill.”
Managing traffic at harvest is another focus to prevent unnecessary damage to soils, employing common-sense tactics such as running on low-pressure tyres, sticking to tramlines and turning grain trailers on the headland when empty rather than full.
This attention to detail extends to the way the farm plans to weather the storm of low grain prices. Mr Taylor looks to target any small marginal gains, squeezing maximum yield out of every hectare.
But he is also clear that sometimes rational decisions have to be made, weighing crop viability and costs against prospective margins.
“I think you’ve got to be brave enough to take a first loss, ask whether it’s worth taking a poorly established crop, one with lots of blackgrass or bad flea beetle damage through to harvest.”
The estate isn’t just expanding its rotation with grass leys and bird mixes though, deeper rotational changes are happening in line with a wider trend across the Farmcare farms.
This season an increased area of maize for a local anaerobic digestate plant is being grown following a good harvest, with less winter barley going in the ground, because the margins aren’t so attractive now, says Mr Taylor.
Although well over 100 miles from the known cabbage stem flea beetle hotbeds in East Anglia, the pest is beginning to cause concerns for oilseed rape production.
“This year flea beetle has been a real issue for the first time. I’ve never seen flea beetle like it – they are definitely spreading west.
“Now if we can’t get oilseed rape in the ground by the end of July or early August, then it’s not worth growing,” says Mr Taylor. About 30ha of one 90ha block has been lost to flea beetle damage this autumn.
Farmcare in focus
While the estate was once home to five dairy herds totalling 1,200 cows, there are no plans to return to the days of mixed farming at Down Ampney, unlike at some of the other Farmcare farms.
Over at the Stoughton Estate in Leicestershire, dairy cows are on farm for the first time since the 1990s, with plans to increase numbers from the 120 at present to about 650 cattle in total.
It’s all part of Farmcare’s 10-year policy to focus on future proofing each of its farms and driving turnover growth.
Farmcare chief executive Richard Quinn says livestock will be gradually introduced to farms that are suitable candidates.
“It isn’t one size fits all. We are bringing back livestock on to the arable farm at Stoughton and dairy cows were chosen because it’s a heavy land farm with a decent amount of pastureland – this is land that grows really good grass.
“It also works well with the arable rotation and gets a grass ley in there, fitting in with our plan to widen rotations and increase organic matter.”
But why now, when grain prices are depressed, costs are rising and the dairy sector doesn’t look all that bright either? Such a decision is bound to raise a few eyebrows.
Mr Quinn holds the view that there is no better time to re-evaluate a farm’s position than when prospects seem less than encouraging.
“I would argue that now is the time to look in the mirror and seek to improve what you do.
“If you wait until times are good there is little real incentive to make big changes that need to be made. Also, I would say that the very nature of this sector is focused on the long term.”
Taking the lead on environmental responsibility in agriculture is a core aim, as the business continues to drive improvements in productivity.
“We decided to set the bar high and undertake a cultural shift of continuous review to deliver this leading international standard,” Mr Quinn explains.
Farmcare has just been awarded the ISO14001, a global standard for environmental management systems, one of the first farming businesses to be accredited in this way.
“What that means on farm is that we think about the environment. We look at soil improvement, energy and carbon reduction and the impact we have on the environment.
“It’s meant getting new areas of bird mix planted, getting staff to think about fuel usage and grain storage and so on.
“We wanted to demonstrate that we were doing a good job on the environment and it has helped us to think about our soils and our rotations.”
- 12 estates across England and Scotland
- 16,000ha total area
- Growing combinable crops, potatoes, fruit and vegetables
- 250 full-time staff plus seasonal workers
- £40m annual turnover
- Wellcome Trust bought Co-operative Group’s farm business for £249m in 2014, rebranding it Farmcare
Speaking to Farmers Weekly some 18 months ago, Mr Quinn laid out ambitious plans to expand Farmcare’s turnover by 30% in three years. Halfway through this timescale, he acknowledges that a number of significant factors have changed since then.
“We are up against a headwind of depressed prices and it is a tough challenge, but we are making progress with widening rotations and also growing our potato production and seed crops, like growing wheat seed for Agrii.
“We are also targeting crops with better margins, for example, growing more maize for AD at Down Ampney.”
Achieving a better understanding of crop production costs is also a key aim of Farmcare’s game plan.
While the farms have been using precision agriculture systems such as variable rate seeding and applications, Mr Quinn says he is focused on trying to aggregate all the collected data to be more efficient and make better decisions in the long run.