student ideas help plan for the future

The fortunes of farming have changed vastly since Farmers Weekly first wrote up the Institute of Agricultural Management’s Farm Planner of the Year competition in 1993.

Back then, it was all about production; now cost-cutting, environment and diversification are the new mantras.

So it was for the 2005 competition, which considered the future of the home farm on John Giffard’s Chillington Estate near Codsall, Staffs.

Managed by Andrew Blenkiron from Smiths Gore, it is a 660ha (1630-acre) mixed farm with 500ha (1235ha) of combinable crops and 150ha (360 acres) of grassland supporting 1300 north of England Mule ewes, 250 Mule ewe lambs, and a small herd of Longhorn cattle.

With Wolverhampton eight miles down the road, there is population enough to support a number of possible farm diversifications.

In fact the farm already sells 40-50 boxes of lamb locally each year and is thinking about a farm shop.

There were nine teams in this year’s competition, and the winners were Matt Trewartha and Russell Corfield from Harper Adams University College in Shropshire.

They saw off the other contenders, said the judges, because they analysed the business well, produced a radical rethink of its direction and provided detailed financial information to back it up with.

So what were their main suggestions and what did the farm manager think of their ideas?

1 Reduce arable acreage from 500ha to 60ha

  • Andrew Blenkiron’s comment

“The Harper team did a good set of costings and it’s true that the arable production is very marginal – in fact it makes a loss.

When I worked out our total production costs, it actually costs us 92 to produce a tonne of wheat.

“Though we would not want to reduce the acreage by that much, we are dropping 80ha (200 acres) of lower-margin crops like spring beans and spring barley, plus halving the area of winter barley to 20ha (50 acres) and taking 40ha (100 acres) of poorer-yielding areas out of arable production.

But we still think a mixed farming policy is the safest one to weather the ups and downs of agriculture.”

2 Increase the sheep flock from 1300 to 3350 ewes

  • Andrew Blenkiron’s comment

“This is radical stuff, involving a virtual trebling of the flock.

We have looked at this option and it is appealling given that our sheep flock has been very profitable over the last three years.

“The chief problem is that we would be putting all our eggs in one basket.

Though we still have 35% of this year’s lambs to sell, sheep prices are not looking as good this year and I’m not so optimistic for next year.”

3 Boost the Longhorn beef herd from 15 to 110 head

  • Andrew Blenkiron’s comment

“Again, the idea is a sound one, and there is definitely potential to develop the Chillington Hall brand we sell under.

But it’s not as easy to boost numbers as the students might think.

“At the moment we sell the lamb by a box scheme to about 80 customers in the area and we could do the same for the beef.

But I think we would struggle to sell more than 30 beasts a year that way “I’m also looking at selling the beef through local butchers and farm shops, but there is a lot of competition in the premium beef market now.

It may be that we could sell from Chillington Hall itself; we have about 1500 visitors a year, but we are hoping to increase that.”

4 Start a turkey (or even a goose) enterprise

  • Andrew Blenkiron’s comment

“It’s a nice idea in theory, but the trouble is that our staff are very busy doing repairs and building work in the winter.

If we took them off those tasks we would have to pay tradesmen to come in and do the jobs at much higher rates.”