David Hall is still trying to get his cropping rotation back in check almost two years after his farm was hit by the wet harvest of 2008, and the financial effects are still being felt.
Northumberland suffered weeks of relentless wet weather that harvest. “The harvest of 2008 was a nightmare; it never dried up at all,” recalls Mr Hall, farm manager at Chipchase Farm, just north of Hexham, Northumberland.
He described it as the worst he had known in 24 years working at Chipchase. Wet ground conditions meant that 35ha of oilseed rape and the same area of winter barley were left unharvested, while around three-quarters of winter wheat that was harvested had sprouted grains.
Only 25% of the 2008 planned autumn drilling campaign was completed and Mr Hall consequently put about 250ha into spring barley and 90ha into spring oilseed rape the following spring.
Almost two years on, Mr Hall has almost reinstated the target crop rotation of winter wheat followed by spring barley, winter barley and winter oilseed rape.
So far this season, he has drilled 146ha of winter wheat, 146ha of winter barley and 80ha of winter oilseed rape.
But more wet weather over the last few weeks means Mr Hall is still waiting to sow 110ha of spring barley and 32ha of spring oilseed rape, to cover the 525ha of arable land. He is budgeting for an average yield of 9.25t/ha for winter wheat and 6.8t/ha for winter barley. “We are just about back into rotation now,” adds Mr Hall.
To avoid the same happening again with future wet harvests, Mr Hall has changed his strategy. Last Christmas, he bought a second combine, a Claas Lexion 430 with a 6m head, which is smaller and more mobile than his 7.5m head Claas Lexion 460 and can cover the wetter ground quicker.
Mr Hall has also tried to spread the workload of harvest by growing more spring crops, including spring barley.
“Spring barley yields are just about matching those for winter barley,” he says. “We struggle to make 3t/acre on the winter barley, but we need it as an entry into the rape, as well as spreading the harvest.
“That is partly why we grow the spring barley. It spreads the workload and takes 110ha away in the autumn which we don’t have to drill. “Coming through to harvest time it means we have a good spread of crops.” About 80ha of overwintered stubble followed by a spring crop is also required under an option in the farm’s stewardship scheme.
All spring barley varieties are malting varieties and they are sold through Tynegrain, in South Shields, on a contract. Tynegrain agronomist Richard Allinson provides Mr Hall with advice on his crops.
Despite the current poor spring barley price of around £80/t ex-farm, Mr Hall says the crop can pay good dividends if it reaches good malting barley quality.
All remaining crops – an estimated 3000t – go to Tynegrain where it is dried and stored and marketed by Grain Co in their long pool.
Mr Hall’s main farming strategy is to keep everything simple, stick with what works best and improve it.
He and Ian White, a tractor driver/mechanic, are the only two full-time workers at Chipchase. Together they manage 820ha of land farmed in hand on Chipchase Estates, owned by the Torday family. Two or three part-time helpers work when required at harvest time for grain carting and cultivations.
Of the 820ha farmed, 525ha is under the plough with the remainder being in grassland, including 56ha of hay used to feed the sheep with the rest sold locally.
All the ploughing on the farm is done using a Overum five-furrow reversible ploughs. Crops are drilled using a Vaderstad 3M system disc drill with a He-Va front press with a shatter board fitted with front linkage to the tractor. Up to three five-furrow reversible ploughs enable staff to plough up to 30ha a day when tractors and men are available.
“I’ve never dared try min-till, I plough everything,” Mr Hall explains. “The plough is so versatile, it buries trash, breaks up soil compaction and lets the water drain over the winter months.”
The farm’s three ageing Case tractors – an MXM175 and two MX135s – were traded in last year for two new John Deere tractors – a John Deere 7530 and a John Deere 6930. A third John Deere tractor will be hired for 10 weeks this harvest.
The Househam Super Sprint 24m sprayer is regularly serviced by Househam mechanics. It is used to apply liquid nitrogen on crops, through dribble bars. All nitrogen is applied in liquid form and the same sprayer is used to complete all spray applications. P and K is applied as a solid through a Kuhn twin-disc spreader.
When Mr Hall first arrived at Chipchase 24 years ago, there was a lot more livestock on the farm, with 150 suckler cows, 2000 ewes and about 400ha of arable.
The farm’s focus has shifted increasingly towards arable farming in recent years and he expects it to remain this way for the foreseeable future. “Livestock has been up and down these last 10 years since foot-and-mouth,” notes Mr Hall.
“To go back into livestock it would take a huge investment in more fencing, staff and livestock, whereas with cereals, the yields are quite good.”
Mr Hall is also upbeat about the new Ensus biofuel plant being built at Seal Sands on Teesside – a factory big enough to consume a tenth of Britain’s wheat production and turn it into biodiesel.
“In years to come, we might have to change our cereal varieties to target the Ensus plant,” he says. “When it gets up and running, it will hopefully take a lot of wheat out of this area.”
Mr Hall believes once the plant starts running fully it might also boost local prices, which would be an added benefit.
Varieties and average yields
• Crop Varieties Yield t/ha
• Wheat Claire, Cordiale 9.25
• Winter barley Carat 6.8
• Spring barley Quench, Tipple 6.2
• Winter oilseed rape 3.5
• Spring oilseed rape Heros 2.5
Chipchase Farm Kit List
• Claas Lexion 460 7.5m head
• Claas Lexion 430 6m head
• JCB 530-70 telehandler
• 200hp John Deere 7530
• 180hp John Deere 6930
• 180hp John Deere 6930 (hired at harvest)
Cultivation and drilling
• Three 5-furrow Overum reversible ploughs
• Vaderstad 3m drill with system discs
• He-Va front press with shatter board on front linkage
• 5.5m Vaderstad NZ cultivator
• 4m Lely Power Harrow
• Opico He-va rollers with shatter boards 6.3m width
• 24m Househam Super Sprint
• Kuhn twin disc spreader