What makes a top-performing arable manager

High-quality management is the most important factor in running a successful arable business – more important than even the quality of the land. But what does good management involve?

Will Gemmill, head of farming at Strutt & Parker, sets out the skills and behaviours that give top growers the edge:

1. Focused on the crop

Growers who achieve a consistent top 10% level of performance – hitting premium markets and pushing yields beyond the level their land type would suggest – are those that are focused on the business of growing crops.

Many, although not all, are BASIS qualified and like to work in partnership with their agronomist to find solutions to problems. They acknowledge that chemical solutions are dwindling and they need to adapt.

See also: 7 tips for motivating arable farm staff

They are walking their fields every two or three days and have a good understanding of how their crops are evolving each week, staying on top of timings and tweaking the strategy field by field or load by load.

2. Challenge themselves over everything

The top 10% never rest on their laurels. There is always a variety, crop or block that can be improved on and the best challenge for them is to do better next time, building on their experience.

With limited new technology, there’s no silver bullet to raising farm performance on the horizon. It is about striving to do everything that you do better and make marginal gains across the board.

With yields tending to plateau, changes in management practice can lead to advances in performance. The best are less accepting of “problem areas” and are willing to take action to address them.

3. Good staff managers

Getting staff or family members engaged is another vital ingredient. The best performers are talking to their team, explaining the detail, for example, about why they need extra seed in some areas or why the corner of a field needs to be cultivated more thoroughly.

Through this process, operators become engaged and realise that if the farm doesn’t get blackgrass control right then it is going to have a big effect further down the line.

4. Soil management a priority

Improving soil management has moved up the agenda on every farm, but there is a gap between the best and the rest. The people who are pushing forward understand the principles of soil management, so high-yielding crops across the rotation suggests the soil, its structure and its management are in good order.

This is where teamwork can shine through, with everyone working together, from the combine driver and trailer/bailer operators through to the cultivation team and the drill man.

Regular soil testing and correcting soil indices are a given. The top performers are including bulky organic wastes such as compost to improve their crops’ access to nutritional and organic products such as manures, sludges or digestate.

They are looking at their soil maps and then analysing their records on emergence, ear counts and how that all translates through to yields. They have a detailed handle, backed by records, on the performance of every field.

5. Willing to take decisions

A manager who cannot make a decision causes frustration and problems. It is painful when you see someone dithering over the right course of action. 

It wastes time and the decision taken in the end isn’t necessarily the right one – it’s sometimes one you’ve been forced into because it has taken so long to make up your mind.

6. Progressive, but not following fads

Part of being a progressive, successful farmer is being open-minded when it comes to new ideas. Some of the best are not always the first to embrace technology or new techniques, because they like to assess what is right for them first.

They know it is also important not to follow fads and to make sure that as changes are introduced the results are closely monitored.

Technology can make a difference to a business, but it has to be used in the right way. Ask: “Is it something that is really going to bring a benefit?”

People who jump from one approach to another, sowing lots of different crops and trying lots of different cultivation systems, have no baseline for performance levels.

7. Excellent communication skills

Some of the most successful growers have expanded through contract farming, rather than buying or renting land. They win tenders based on their performance, but also their ability to cultivate and look after clients.

Communication is also about listening, and the top performers will find time to meet and listen to other farmers at the top of their game to see what they can learn from them.