Scottish college team wins 2021 Farmplanner award

The Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) team has claimed the 2021 Farmplanner of the Year title for a business plan fitting most closely with the aims of Northumberland host Blagdon Farms.

The team’s proposals included putting reclaimed former opencast coal mining land into a five-year winter wheat, oilseed rape and cover crop rotation.

Management of this would include using sheep to graze forward wheat and oilseed rape crops to reduce disease risk, also reducing chemical requirements and helping biodiversity.

Shetland lambs were recommended as the breed choice, for environment and biodiversity reasons, as well as promotion of a native breed. The sheep would add organic matter and reduce the need for rolling, while stubble turnips would also be introduced for keep.

See also: Sussex farm weighs pros and cons of biodiversity pilot scheme

The sheep enterprise was presented as relatively low cost in terms of capital investment, requiring a mobile handling unit and electric fencing. The SRUC plan also suggested there were added-value opportunities from processing the high-quality wool for sale in the farm shop.  

The 2021 judges and shortlisted teams

Judges:

Tim Brigstocke (IAgrM), Richard Cooksley (IAgrM), Trevor Atkinson (farm adviser), Matthew Williamson (Galbraith Estate land agent), Fraser Johnson (Blagdon farm manager), Scott Millar (Farmplan) and Suzie Horne (Farmers Weekly).

Shortlisted teams

  • Bishop Burton College, East Yorkshire
  • Derby College – highly commended for the quality of its ideas
  • Harper Adams University, Shropshire
  • Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne
  • Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC)

Dairy investment in new cubicles and mats was proposed, to improve cow health and benefit hygiene, milk quality and efficiency.

A slurry store cover to cut ammonia emissions was part of the SRUC vision to move the farm towards net-zero carbon, alongside feeding a seaweed supplement to reduce cow methane emissions.

Retention ponds would be introduced to achieve a more extensive level of biodiversity, and a 6ha traditional orchard for pick-your-own and tree rental income, additional sales through the farm shop and opportunities for an enhanced product range using the estate’s apples.

The student teams were asked to address questions on the estate’s future policy:

  • About 200ha of former opencast coal mining land is coming back into the rotation – how should this land be used?   
  • What infrastructure investment is required to maintain a profitable farming operation for the foreseeable future?
  • Looking at the whole farm, what decisions should be made now to achieve net-zero carbon and better promote the farm’s environmental priorities and achievements?              
  • What additional added-value products should the farm consider producing that can be sold profitably through the Blagdon farm shop?

Blagdon Farms

  • 1,011ha – in-hand farming operation on Blagdon Estate, owned by the Ridley family.
  • Long association with opencast coal mining, with the most recent schemes due to be returned to the farm next year.
  • Predominantly heavy soils, poorly drained and often former opencast areas, smaller areas of light soils.
  • Aims are to derive a modest, not maximum, annual profit from a system that minimises financial risk and volatility. Preserving and enhancing the landscape, flora, fauna, buildings, the land, including aspects such as soil structure, soil fertility and drainage, are all important aspects.
  • In Higer Level Stewardship and moving into a stewardship scheme.
  • Principal enterprises – arable, milk, beef and 5ha of vegetables sold through the farm shop, a tenant of the estate. Arable land is all in combinable crops, with a large area of cover crops.
  • Livestock – 140-cow Holstein-Friesian dairy herd, Belted Galloway sucklers, dairy crosses, and small herd of White Park cattle, plus 600 turkeys reared for the Christmas market and 60 laying hens producing eggs for the farm shop.

Farm adviser to the estate Trevor Atkinson said: “We had to judge this on which team best matched their proposals with the estate’s objectives. We also looked at how well they worked together as a team.

“Our final judgement was based on the ideas that we could most likely see being introduced at Blagdon and, taking everything into account, those came from SRUC.”

Blagdon farm manager Fraser Johnson said: “Some of the SRUC ideas are things we are considering – we have had store lambs in the past and we’re hoping to develop that. In the dairy, we are looking at concrete grooving and slurry store covers.”

Farmplanner of the Year – what is it?

Farmplanner is a competition for teams from UK agricultural universities and colleges. Run by the Institute of Agricultural Management (IAgrM), 2021 marks the 28th year of the competition.

An estate or family farm needing to address several questions is chosen as a case study. Teams are set questions by the host farmer, often addressing business structure, enterprise mix, staff, family involvement and/or assessing potential for new ventures.

The teams make an initial visit to the host farm, although Covid-19 restrictions made this impractical this year. Following the farm visit, the teams are then given sufficient time to prepare and submit a business plan.

This year’s farm visit was replaced by a remote presentation by the estate’s staff and advisers. Each team also had an individual Q&A session with the estate team.

A shortlist of plans is selected and the finalist teams present these to the judges – for the past two years this has been conducted remotely.

It is envisaged that Farmplanner will return to a live farm visit in 2022 and to live presentations by the shortlisted teams for the judging session.

Could you be the 2022 Farmplanner host farm?

IAgrM is looking for a farm business that needs to make decisions about its future direction and is willing to host teams of agricultural students to walk the farm and draw up competing business plans.

The ideal host farm:

  • Has at least two significant enterprises, preferably arable and livestock
  • Is willing to put in a total of four days’ time for an initial IAgrM visit, introductory visit by the teams, shortlisting day, and judging day
  • Needs to be open about issues the business/family faces, to involve family where it is a family business
  • Should be willing to supply figures in confidence to a level of detail that allows teams to draw a meaningful business plan
  • Must be prepared to set students some challenging questions.

What’s in it for the host?

The host gains independent business insight/ideas – often ones that those close to the business might not arrive at – from fresh eyes on the business and at no cost. Several ideas from previous years’ entries have been successfully taken up by the host farms.

When does the competition take place?

Usually, the on-farm work (one day) takes place in early spring, with the shortlisted teams presenting their appraisals to the hosts and the other judges in May/June.

Recent hosts include:

  • Exton Estate, Oakham, Rutland 
  • John and Cathy Charles-Jones, Woodborough, Nottingham
  • Trustees of the Sundown Estate, The Rea Farm, Upton Magna, Shrewsbury
  • Geoff and Angela Jones, The Yennards Farm, Earl Shilton, Leicestershire.

If you would like to give students the chance to test their mettle on your farm business or estate, please contact IAgrM director Victoria Bywater on 01275 843 825 or victoria@iagrm.com

Futures contracts: farmer views wanted

Do you use futures and options markets to help you manage risk? Or are you interested to learn more? Farmers Weekly is keen to find out the extent to which UK farmers use these markets. Complete our survey here.

Take the survey

Futures markets and commodity risk management online course:

  • Risk management strategies for a more predictable financial performance
  • Educated conversations when collaborating with your advisors
  • Negotiate better prices with your grain merchants

View course