Efficiency is the farming future

Arable farmers growing only commodity crops must be prepared to explore all opportunities to work more closely with others to flourish in the immediate aftermath of CAP reform.

That is the prevailing approach at Hill House Farm, Hedenham, from where Sentry Farms’ John Barrett manages about 1295ha (3200 acres) of combinable crops and sugar beet.

The business covers three local estates and a joint venture on land at Diss 15 miles to the west.

“Nowadays it’s no good thinking parochially,” says Mr Barrett, who began running the arable side of Ditchingham Estate in 2001 after a spell in Dorset.

“A year later we took on Kirby Cane Estate two miles away, and last September we brought in 640 acres of Bruce Seaman Farms next door, all on contract farming agreements.”

Having only three full-time staff, Chris Vincent and Daniel Marshall at Hedenham and Charlie Garland at Diss, and a growing role within the overall Sentry operation, he admits his focus of attention is on maximising efficiency as much as pushing crops to their limit.

The land – 80% heavy Beccles series clay with some lighter soils in a valley and at Diss, where some is let for potato production – is not outstandingly productive, he acknowledges.

Annual rainfall is only about 550mm (22in) and irrigation is a must for potatoes.

“We average about 3.5t/acre on wheat, our main crop, but I’m targeting 3.7 now that we are trying to move away from second wheats.

“We budget for 1.4t/acre of oilseed rape, and I know we need to aim higher.”

About a fifth of Kirby Cane is in set-aside, 10% permanent.

Milling wheats have been dropped after last season’s full spec Solstice received only a £5/t premium.

“It just doesn’t stack up against the £7/t haulage charge to the midlands and the cost of the extra nitrogen needed.”

This year’s varieties are Robigus and Nijinsky, well suited to exporting through nearby Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, he says.

Besides sugar beet the main breaks are oilseed rape, winter beans, vining peas for the Anglian Pea Group, and linseed.

“We try to run two rotations keeping the beet on the lighter land.

But that’s extra difficult this year.

Our quota is already down 6.8%, and could be due for another cut.

But we’ve already applied salt and sludge to all the land we expected to drill and ploughed it.”

Juggling cropping and organising labour and machinery to cope with it in the most efficient way is a challenge best met by co-operating with other farms, not necessarily Sentry units, Mr Barrett believes.

The sugar beet drill, for example, is used widely, sometimes at the expense of traditional contractors, he admits.

“It’s a cut-throat business.”

Drying and storage limitations, which he hopes to reduce before harvest, mean all oilseed rape and about a third of the wheat is sold off the combine, a Lexion 550.

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