Suffolk grower becomes AHDB’s first strategic arable farm

Suffolk Brian Barker is to be the host farmer for the first AHDB strategic farm for arable growers, which opens its doors this week.

For the next six years, Mr Barker’s 513ha farm near Stowmarket will be used to test various agronomic practices, with nine fields initially being earmarked for trials.

Crucially for its audience, which is expected to come from the East Midlands, East Anglia and the South East, every technique will be costed to see whether it is viable on farm.

See also: Six newcomers join arable Monitor Farms network

That makes the strategic farm project a unique opportunity to evaluate outcomes on a larger scale, says former AHDB monitor farmer Mr Barker, who adds that it will assess various approaches across a full rotation.

Brian Barker

Brian Barker

“We will also be showing growers how they can do the same investigations and measure any impacts on their own farms,” he says.

Steering group 

The strategic farm east agenda will largely be set by his steering group, so that it succeeds in getting farmers to discuss and exchange ideas, and make sure everything is relevant, practical and understandable.

Research gaps identified during monitor farm meetings, as well as promising on-farm innovations, will be considered for inclusion, as will more pressing challenges, such as the possible loss of key active ingredients.

Baseline assessments on the nine fields have already been done at Lodge Farm, with soil analysis and earthworm counts completed, while a weather station has been installed.

In addition, a sustainability review has been completed, so that any tested approaches meet the farm’s environmental and wildlife obligations.

Crop biomass

One of the first trials in the ground comes from the Yield Enhancement Project (YEN) run by crop consultant Adas.

“Early crop biomass has been shown to be very important for high yields. However, many farms are choosing to drill later, due to grassweed pressure, so crop biomass going into the winter is smaller,” Mr Barker says.

Farm facts: EJ Barker & Sons

EJ Barker is a family farming partnership based at Lodge Farm, Westhorpe in Suffolk.

A 12-year rotation is in place, featuring winter wheat, herbage grass seed, spring barley, spring beans and spring linseed.

The 2017 harvest saw yields just above the farm’s five year average, with spring beans breaking the previous record by coming in at 4.85t/ha.

Brian Barker’s tenure as a monitor farm saw him make significant changes to his establishment system, reduce his costs of production and benchmark both crop and business performance. He is keen to maintain flexibility in his farming system, find ways to cope with increasing uncertainty and assess every opportunity that comes his way.

“This particular trial has been designed to see if we can get a later sown crop to catch up, by manipulating it with nutrition,” he adds.

The investigations will start with small plot trials so that the most promising treatments can be chosen for a tramline trial in the following year. If successful, a full field trial will follow in the third year.

“It’s important that we can follow things right across the rotation, as well as to measure the ups and downs and any cost benefit. The baseline assessments mean that we can record any changes over time,” he says.

What are AHDB strategic farms?

These are part of the organisation’s farm excellence platform, which aims to improve business performance through farmer-to-farmer learning.

Each strategic farm for arable farmers will run for six years, so that independent research takes place across the rotation.

New ways of working will be demonstrated and subjected to a full cost-benefit analysis, says AHDB’s knowledge transfer manager Emily Smith.

“Although Brian is hosting it, the trials and demonstrations won’t just be relevant to his business. They will get farmers to go on a journey, as well as exchange views and expertise,” she says.

Recruitment has now started to find two further host farms, which will be launched in 2018 and 2019.

Farmers and growers are welcome to attend future strategic farm meetings, which are free of charge. In 2018, there will be a field walk in May, an open day in June and a results day in November.