Farm Manager of the Year finalists – Doug Pickup

This year’s Farm Manager of the Year finalists combined imagination, excellent technical ability, and sound business management. Ian Ashbridge reports

The Judges 

Cheffins consultant David Bolton, FW’s Ian Ashbridge and 2006 Farm Manager of the Year Adrian Cannon.

The criteria 

  • Vision for the future of the industry
  • Profitable and efficient system
  • Environmental and social responsibility
  • Innovation and imagination
  • Marketing and purchasing strategy

Doug Pickup – Buildings Farm, Syderstone, Norfolk

Employer: Sentry (North Norfolk)

Doug with judgesDoug Pickup modestly dismisses what he does as “basically contract farming in north Norfolk”. But in fact he faces the enormity of managing seven farming operations over 41 miles. He plays this chess-like game like a grandmaster.

“The level of machinery movement quickly concentrates the mind – we aim to travel as little as possible.”

The son of a farm manager from Hertfordshire, Doug trained at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester and came to Norfolk in 1991. He has worked for Sentry for over 20 years.

“All the farms have to be run as individual units and individual businesses, so we can’t block crop. For example, each farm has its own sugar beet quota.” For some, it’s a logistical nightmare, but not for Doug.

Soils range from light, sandy loams in the north, suiting sugar beet and spring barley, to heavier land in the south supporting winter wheat and beans. Two farms grow potatoes, both are irrigated. Straw is incorporated for the benefit of the lighter soils and its nutrient value.

Doug runs his collection of businesses as overall manager, with a well-motivated and self-reliant staff of six tractor drivers and one trainee manager. He involves the farm foreman in most decisions such as cropping plans and machinery purposes.

Doug is BASIS and FACTS qualified and is involved in all the farms’ agronomic policy. His aim is to achieve the highest total Doug with judgesgross margin through maximising the area of root crops and adding value to others by securing premiums for seed grain and malting barley. His strategy for achieving this is based on increased efficiency and progressively reducing costs through better use of machinery and labour.

“I’m looking to reduce machinery passes even more but I’m not compromising for the sake of it.”

Typically, Doug uses his judgement to prepare budgets for the seven farming operations over 1 year ahead, based on direct costs and crop sales. Coupled with this, he has to account for the overall performance of his business to Sentry as a whole. This super-budget includes all income, labour costs, fuel, depreciation and hire charges and demonstrates the profitability of Sentry’s operation under Doug’s leadership. His performance is judged on the return on investment he provides – and it’s a considerable 26%.

He draws market information from several different grain traders and some malting barley is grown on forward contracts. Doug has achieved British Sugar’s 70t/ha challenge and wheats yield up to 10t/ha. Varieties grown include Einstein, Istabraq, Robigus, Zebedee and Alchemy.

“This is big commodity, low unit cost production. But I can’t walk all my crops with the area I’ve got.”

But Doug is not about production at any cost. “We’re not just here to plough and harvest the fields. We have a permanent interest.”

Doug with judgesTo that end, all the farms are in the Entry Level scheme, under Countryside Stewardship agreements or both and wild bird strips have attracted “phenomenal” wildlife. He has also helped create a woodland which is open to the public through a series of permissive routes and communicates with a local school about his farming activities.

A father of two, Doug finds time for walking in Scotland and plays squash. You sense that he competes at whatever he does.

“I get a big kick from watching the crops grow well and following changes in practices and policies. Two or three years ago, agriculture felt depressed. But there’s so much more of a positive outlook among people now.”

Farm facts

  • 1795ha (4435 acres) barley, OSR, wheat, beans, sugar beet potatoes and linseed. Sixty-cow suckler herd.
  • Sentry provides labour, machinery and management on six contract-farming agreements. All operations carried out on one further farm, charges on a fee basis.

What the judges liked

  • Formidable organisational ability over the biggest geographical area.
  • Multiple clients to satisfy and excellent business management skills, preparing seven separate farm budgets.
  • Methodical and considered approach and good cropping plan.

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