2016 Farmers Weekly Awards: Farm Manager of the Year finalists revealed

The Farmers Weekly Awards celebrate the very best of British farming by recognising and rewarding innovation, hard work and passion for agriculture.

These three farm managers show wide-ranging skills running enterprises from an intensive vegetable-growing operation to an upland Scottish beef and sheep estate. David Jones reports.

Simon Day, Tim Pratt, Sion Willaims

From left: Simon Day, Tim Pratt, Sion Williams

See also: Keep up with the latest from the 2016 Farmers Weekly Awards

Simon Day

Worth Farms, Holbeach Hurn, Spalding, Lincolnshire

Simon Day

With fresh water in short supply Simon Day blends saline water, rainwater and waste water to expand on-farm irrigation © Tim Scrivener

Simon Day is using salty water from dykes in his low-lying corner of Lincolnshire to potentially treble the value of potatoes grown on the rich silt land which he manages.

Farming on land at sea level near The Wash where ground water is saline, he has been busy determining how he can make use of this water to irrigate his spuds.

Improving skin finish and avoiding common scab are key to meet the demand of the potato packers, and irrigation is essential in achieving good-quality skins.

Fresh water is in short supply, so Simon looks to blend saline water with collected rainwater along with waste water from a vegetable pack house to expand irrigation across his potato land.

The judges liked

Unique approach to the use and application of digestate

Well-maintained farm buildings and infrastructure

Widening the rotation, growing maize and hybrid rye energy crops

“We are aiming to produce high-quality crops on a broad-acre system and blending saline water with rainwater for irrigation is helping the quality,” he says.

He has determined that water up to 1,000 parts per million of salt can be used without any deleterious effect on yield and last year’s irrigation used 30% saline water.

Irrigation is important to improve quality as the variety Maris Piper with water can reach top prices of £250-300/t compared with non-irrigated crops that fail to make packing grade and go to processors at £50-100/t.

The 240ha of potatoes grown in the rich silts saw average yields almost touch 60t/ha from a range of varieties, and generally 95% of the harvest now hits the quality needed for the pre-pack market.

The crop is the most profitable on the 2,138ha of arable land he manages at Holbeach Hurn, 10 miles east of Spalding on land that runs up to the sea wall.

Cropping also includes vining peas, winter wheat and mustard along with energy crops maize and hybrid rye, which are grown to feed the farm’s anaerobic digester plant.

Simon moved to the position of production manager in 2010 at the largely tenanted farming business and four years later moved up to be farm manager.

In the all-arable rotation, he is looking to improve soil organic matter on his coastal alluvial silts.

Farm facts

Total cropping area of 2,138ha  

Cropping includes potatoes, vining peas, sugar beet, maize, hybrd rye and mustard

Use of digestate reduced bought in fertiliser by more than £50,000

Digestate increased wheat yields by 1.5t/ha

In an effort to boost soil quality, he has moved to reduce ploughing to prevent loss of organic matter, incorporate straw, use solid and liquid digestate, and grow mustard as a biofumigant cover crop.

All potatoes head for QV Foods, owned by Worth Farms, or Manor Fresh, which is 50% owned, with the two packers based on the same site as the farm’s headquarters.

Typically, 20% of volume goes through Manor Fresh to Marks and Spencer, with irrigated Maris Piper and Marfona forming the backbone of this supply, backed up by Melody and Chopin.

The rest of the harvest is marketed through QV Foods, specifically targeted to supply Asda and Aldi.

The heavy investment in irrigation over the past three years has seen two reservoirs built and the underground irrigation water main expanded.

In the past season, Simon calculates this expanded irrigation increased the quality of potatoes equating to about £50/t over more than 3,000t of annual production, before taking into account any yield advantage.

After the construction of the anaerobic digester on the site in 2013, in a joint venture with Tamar Energy, the arable operation has access to solid and liquid digestate and the liquid from the plant is applied via an 18m umbilical spreading system.

This has allowed an annual cut in fertiliser use by more than £50,000, and has seen wheat yields rise by up to 1.5t/ha where digestate was used to push them up to more than 14t/ha in 2015.

Simon believes the real value that comes from the plant is the digestate, as it not only provides nitrogen, phosphate and potash, but acts as a soil conditioners.

In five years time, he looks forward to a business which is bigger and more robust to produce its key crops, potatoes and wheat, at low cost and to work closely with its chosen range of customer retailers.

Tim Pratt

Wantisden Hall Farms, Wantisden, Woodbridge, Suffolk

Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt believes pigs and sheep help improve the sustainability of intensive vegetable production on his light land © Tim Scrivener

Tim Pratt is using outdoor pigs and sheep to add fertility to the light land Suffolk farm he manages to enable sustainable intensive vegetable production.

Potatoes are the most profitable crop in this south-eastern corner of the county and he wants to ensure a long-term future for spud growing by the use of livestock.

The farm also grows a large area of carrots, onions, swedes and spring greens in this mild microclimate close to the sea and he needs to ensure profits from these crops keep flowing.

The judges liked

Growing a range of specialist crops for a number of specific markets

Innovative approach to soil management on some very light land

Going the extra mile to achieve top quality from vegetable crops

He first turned to free-range pigs to remove potato volunteers and control the crop’s biggest pest – potato cyst nematodes – and also add much need nutrients to his light blow-away sand land while giving him a regular income.

Next came sheep to chomp through the vegetable waste the farm churns out mainly through the autumn, while also using light heathland on the farm in the summer.

“Pigs and sheep help to improve the sustainability of intensive vegetable production on our very light land,” he says.

Tim has been managing the largely arable 1,351ha Wantisden Hall Farms for 10 years, some six miles east of Woodbridge, with the aim of increasing output and using unfarmed land.

The land area he farms has doubled in his 10 years at the helm of the estate by contracting neighbouring land, and the farm has invested heavily in irrigation on its owned land helping to boost yields of its wide range of field-scale vegetables.

Five years ago he moved to rent out land to a neighbouring farmer to run outdoor pigs, which now occupy 55ha, with the pigs rotated around the farm following potato crops.

This allows him to grow 200ha of potatoes in a one-in-six year rotation, while the pigs helped phosphate, potash and magnesium levels rise in the farm’s light soils.

Farm facts

1,351ha of which 785ha is owned with the rest contract farmed

Crops include potatoes, onions, carrots, swedes, spring greens, vining peas, sugar beet, maize, cereals and oilseed rape

Outdoor pigs, sheep and suckler cows introduced

All vegetables are sold through 3 Musketeers

Next came the sheep, introduced four years ago, to graze heathland in the summer and spend the autumn and winter eating up vegetable waste, such as spring greens and sugar beet leaves.

He chose Dorset Horn and Poll Dorset ewes, as they are one of the few sheep breeds to be able to lamb all year, so lambing could be targeted in September just in time for the lambs to eat up and fatten on the vegetable waste.

The lambs also graze cover crops such as black oat/vetch mixes and stubble turnips, and are a low-cost method of adding fertility to the land and also give an extra income.

These livestock enterprises fit in well with a busy cropping regime which sees Tim harvesting and planting in virtually every week of the year.

The rotation on the lightest land is generally potatoes, pigs, sugar beet, onions, carrots and winter cereals, with fewer vegetables grown on the heavier soils.

Growing crops on such light land can be tricky due to wind erosion, and fleece and plastic are used to establish crops for early season production.

Potato harvesting starts at the start of June and can stretch into October as Tim looks to produce 1m tubers per hectare of the variety Maris Peer under 42mm to meet the supermarkets’ criteria.

Yield can vary from 25t/ha for early crops to 50t/ha for later-lifted tubers, with all own land having access to irrigation.

The farm has banded together with five others to market its vegetable produce through a marketing arm 3 Musketeers, which is based on a nearby disused military airstrip and markets direct to the supermarkets.

An anaerobic digester was added four years ago fed by maize, rye and sugar beet pulp to generate an income and also gives Tim liquid and solid digestate to help cut fertiliser bills.

For the future, he intends to boost sheep numbers and the farm’s small suckler cow herd to support the intensive vegetable operation.

Sion Williams

Bowhill Estate, Bowhill, Selkirk, Scottish Borders

Sion Williams

Sion Williams hopes to build the sheep enterprise on his Scottish estate to the point where it is not reliant on subsidies © Angus Findlay

Sion Williams is aiming to make a profit from fat lambs and beef cattle without subsidy on the large upland Scottish Borders estate which he manages.

In a good season and with his best-performing hill flock he is making money before direct state subsidy, while he admits making clear profits from beef cattle will be more difficult.

He is making progress towards a financial breakeven position without subsidy on the near 7,000 lambs which are all fattened at the estate on a contract with Sainsbury’s.

The judges liked

Drive to making profits without subsidy

Fattening all lambs from hill and upland flocks

Industry-beating sheep and beef performance

“We are aiming to get fattened lambs to breakeven, and this will be easier than beef cattle as there are fewer fixed costs with sheep,” he says.

His drive to make money clear of subsidy is based on his policy to introduce better breeding, spreading fixed costs across bigger stock numbers as he looks to increased overall output.

The breeding of his hill flocks of Scottish Blackfaces are left unchanged, but he is using new breeds on his upland flocks to boost lamb numbers and achieve better finished carcasses

Welsh-born Sion moved to the large 3,563ha Bowhill Estate in 2004 as assistant manager and within a year was made farm manager.

The Welsh accent has gone to be replaced by a Scottish brogue during his time working on the Duke of Buccleuch’s estate, based three miles west of Selkirk.

Stocking includes a 5,200-ewe flock and 500 suckler cows with a small amount of barley, oats and kale grown for stock feeding, with most of the land lying between the Yarrow and Ettrick valleys.

His ambition is to try to make the sheep enterprise stand on its own feet without need to rely on the two main subsidies – the Single Farm Payment and Less Favoured Area Support Scheme.

About 12% of the farm’s income comes from subsidy, and this is hoped to be reduced with farming facing uncertainties such as climate change and price volatility.

Much depends on the weather and with a kind lambing season in 2012 one of his Scottish Blackface hill flocks made a small profit, although poor weather in recent years has pushed that flock back into a pre-subsidy loss.

Further downhill, his upland flocks are now based on Blackface cross Aberdale and Aberfield ewes with Abermax and Primera rams used as terminal sires.

The change was made after on-farm trial work identified a £28 a ewe difference in net margin between four breed of ewes, and this led to one of his upland flocks, as well as one of his hill flocks, making a pre-subsidy profit in 2012.

Farm facts

Bowhill managed estate cover 3,563ha

Stocking includes 5,200 ewes and 500 sucklers cows

Cropping of 134ha includes barley, oats and kale

Anaerobic digester built fed with livestock manures

Sion has forged close links with Sainsbury’s and is one of the supermarket chain’s biggest rearers and fatteners supplying almost 7,000 lambs a year out of the retailers demand for 24,000 lambs a week.

All finished lambs are sold to the retailer mainly on contract through meat group Dunbia, and Sion gets feedback on lambs from the abattoirs with each flock’s performance monitored.

The sucker cow herd produces nearly 400 one-year-old store cattle from pedigree Aberdeen Angus cows and Beef Shorthorn crosses, but higher fixed costs in terms of housing makes turning them profit making before subsidy a longer-term project.

Sion is trialling fattening some 40 cattle to see if this may be a way to improve profitability rather than selling one-year-old store cattle, using home-grown grain and silage.

The lamb and beef enterprises are separately costed and benchmarked against other farmers to make data-based business decision.

The high performance being achieved against the farm’s immediate peers is being overseen by Sion as he moves toward subsidy-free profit.

An anaerobic digester just installed is a further move to remove the business from its reliance on subsidies. It is fed on manures from the farm’s livestock enterprises and topped up with silage when required.

In a further move to remove the business’ reliance on state pay-outs the estate operates a 32,000-hen free-range laying unit selling eggs in southern Scotland.

The estate is also in a pilot scheme with the Scottish government trialling new ultra-frequency electric tags, which can store a lot of data and could take over from paper passports.

Sponsor’s message

Claas“We are always highly impressed with the quality of our farm manager finalists. As farming continues to evolve this key role will require greater initiative, more imagination, courage and even greater commitment to the role of farm manager, and all three finalists have demonstrated these qualities in abundance.”

Jeremy Wiggins
UK sales and marketing manager

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