Management Matters: Stepping up to the harvest challenge

It’s been a relatively early start to harvest for HBH Farming partners Guy Hildred and Ed Bishop. A small area of Retriever barley is already in the barn, although yields were disappointingly low at 4.9-5.6t/ha (2-2.25t/acre) and screenings appear to be quite high.

“It’s on gravelly land which burnt off quickly. We’d normally expect to get 2.5-2.75t/acre,” says Mr Hildred. “Crops on the heavier land look better, so hopefully they’ll do OK, but I still think it will be a below-average year.”

The logistical challenge of combining almost 2500ha (6000 acres) across the neighbouring farms is one that both partners are reasonably relaxed about. The variation in soil types provides a natural staggering of crop maturity times and the two high-capacity combines are more than up to the job. The general harvest sequence sees barley cleared first, followed by Group 1 wheats, Group 2s, seed crops, then feed wheat. Beans will fit in when ready. “The system just seems to work,” Mr Bishop says.

HBH runs two Claas Lexion 600 tracked combines with 10.6m (35ft) cutter bars. These are supported by a team of four tractors and 14t trailers plus other smaller trailers are available or hired through Thames & Kennett machinery when necessary. A Fendt 930 is the main workhorse tractor, following behind the combine or baler with a Simba Solo or discs. “We generally don’t subsoil much and certainly won’t need to this year given how dry it’s been,” says Mr Hildred.

Four full-time staff are employed, together with a self-employed tractor driver, harvest student (Mr Bishop’s son), and two semi-retired casual staff when needed. The kit and staff are generally split equally between the two partners’ farms which lie on either side of the River Thames. “Together, the two combines will easily do 150t/hour and there’s no way our storage systems can cope with that for very long.”

Mr Bishop has around 5000t of bin and on-floor storage capacity, which is sufficient in most years, plus a 35t/hour Alvin Blanche drier. “We’re lucky by having two large sheds which means we have space to dump corn and keep the combines running when we need to.” Storage is a slightly bigger challenge for Mr Hildred, as there is only room for around 90% of the total crop, with drying facilities limited to on-floor ducts or grain bins. To ease pressure all oilseed rape is sold for harvest movement through the United Oilseeds marketing pool.

Both combines and all of HBH’s tractors are on Full Service Agreements, which minimises downtime in the event of a breakdown.

“It takes away a lot of the stress knowing that someone will be out pretty quickly if there’s a problem and a replacement machine will be provided if needed,” says Mr Hildred. “It is more expensive but, like any insurance policy, it’s only expensive until you have to make a claim – especially when you consider you probably can’t get someone out for less than £500.”

To chop or not?

Most of the wheat and barley straw across HBH will be baled by contractors this season, due to strong local demand. “Normally, we’d probably only bale about a quarter of our acreage because we’re arable farmers and are not normally thinking too much about straw. But there have been a lot of people knocking on the door for it already this year,” says Mr Hildred.

Fields with poor crop stands or low phosphate and potash soil indices will not be baled though. “We’ll probably end up putting a bit more P & K fertiliser on where we do take straw off, but at £300/t for potash, it is still too expensive, so we’ll try to make as much use as we can of compost and manures next season.”

Both partners acknowledge that if the weather turns unsettled during harvest, they may rethink their decision to bale large amounts of straw. “I reckon we use about 150 litres a day less fuel by not running the straw chopper on the combine, which is a big saving,” Mr Bishop says. “But if we have a harvest like the past two years, it might just turn into a case of getting the crop in when we can.”

Grain marketing

Both HBH partners are responsible for their own grain marketing and varying amounts of the 2010 crop have already been committed. Alongside his oilseed rape, Mr Hildred has recently sold 300t of wheat at £120/t for November, together with another 400t which was committed at £100/t earlier in the year. “I’m keeping a very close eye on markets,” he says.

For Mr Bishop, 500t of Cordiale wheat has been committed to a £15/t premium over feed, while another 600t has been sold at prices varying from £100-120/t. All of his Cassata barley has been sold at £130/t for harvest movement, along with all of the oilseed rape, which he fixed at £240/t. “I tend to do everything through our Openfield representative, as he’s very good and it’s much easier just dealing with one person – it frees up my time as well.”

The sales for harvest movement will help free up cashflow to pay for the urea and ammonium nitrate fertiliser Mr Bishop has bought already. “We decided to buy everything early, but won’t actually pay for it until December. It’s costing us an extra £2-3/t to do that, but I think it’ll be worth it.”

In contrast, Mr Hildred hasn’t yet bought any of his fertiliser as he is worried about the lack of storage space – something that has been exacerbated by the decision to buy up to 100 extra cattle. “I’ll be looking to buy fertiliser sooner rather than later and will probably go for more urea than ammonium nitrate, as it’s about £50/t cheaper and seems to have worked fine this year.”

Fuel purchasing has put an added strain on pre-harvest cashflow. About 120,000 litres is used across HBH each year, with the bulk of that demand over harvest and early autumn. All fuel is bought through the Orion buying group in orders of at least 30,000 litres to get a discounted price.

Forage concerns

Like many farmers, the dry weather has caused problems for Mr Bishop’s flock of 1300 Suffolk mule-cross sheep. Just 64mm (2.5″) of rain has fallen since April and grass growth for fattening lambs has been very poor. “They’re fattening OK, but we’ve just had to start feeding winter forage, which is a worry,” he says. “I expect to start weaning them next month, but at the moment there isn’t really anywhere for them to go. At least the worm pressure has been reduced because it’s been so dry.”

The first 38-40kg lambs are likely to be sold to a local butcher early next month, with the remainder sold through Thame market when ready. Mr Bishop has been considering buying more replacement ewes early to get a better price, but will hold-off for now.

“Long-term, I’d like to expand the flock, but this is the first year we’ve had 1300 head, so I think we’ll stay as we are for now and maybe rethink in six months. If we are to expand the flock, we’ve got to have the right area of grass for them, so it might depend on whether more land comes available.”

Long hours

Commenting on the “long hours culture” in farming, both partners are sceptical about whether it needs to be addressed.

“All our guys are on an hourly rate and if we were to restrict working hours during harvest in line with EU rules, I think there’d be a riot,” Mr Bishop remarks. “At the end of the day, it’s often a lot more comfortable sitting in an air-conditioned tractor or combine cab during hot weather than it is being sat at home.”

Staff generally wouldn’t be required to work any later than 10 or 11pm, depending on conditions, Mr Hildred adds. “The only time we might work later into the night is if its been very hot and dry and we have to get beans in, or heavy rain is forecast.”

HBH 2010 cropping

• 3350 acres wheat

• 1000 acres oilseed rape

• 750 acres barley

• 400 acres beans

• 500 acres poppies

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• More information on other Management Matters farms