Farmer Weekly Awards 2020: Farm manager of the year finalists

The 2020 farm manager finalists share some common challenges. All strive for top technical performance and are experimenting, looking for marginal gains and increasingly questioning input use. They nurture and enhance both the land they manage and the staff they employ. 

The 2020 Farm Manager of the Year finalists:

  • James Beamish
    Holkham Farming Company, Walsingham, Norfolk
  • Peter Cartwright
    Revesby Estate, Boston, Lincolnshire
  • Peter Eccles
    Saughland Farm, Pathhead, Midlothian

The judges are:

  • Andrew Robinson
    Last year’s winner
  • Suzie Horne
    Farmers Weekly business editor
  • Charles Matts
    Independent judge and Northamptonshire farmer

See also: 2019 Farmers Weekly Awards – farm manager of the year

James Beamish

Holkham Farming Company, Walsingham, Norfolk

As well as managing the arable, beef and sheep enterprises on the estate, James is responsible for external contracting and a large commercial grain storage operation.

James Beamish

The farmland is spread across nine holdings belonging to different members of the Coke family. The average field size is 8.5ha and block cropping is not an option.

Holkham is a tourist destination attracting more than a million visitors a year, providing an additional challenge especially on rural roads at harvest.

Yields of all crops apart from oilseed rape have risen during James’s tenure, achieved with extensive use of cover crops, organic manure and a targeted, flexible approach to cultivations.

As soils improve there have also been reductions in fuel (down 20%), metal and crop inputs.

Main challenges
Volatile markets in a changing political landscape are among the biggest challenges, says James. He reduces risk by expanding long-term contracts and optimising output of crops and livestock, alongside detailed financial discipline aimed at cost reduction.

Machinery capital expenditure is planned on a five-year rolling basis but not with automatic replacement at five years – the two main tractors are seven and nine years old.

Improving soil health, careful variety choice, stewardship options and bringing livestock into the arable rotation are all designed to reduce reliance on artificial inputs while optimising output.

He introduced and is expanding the use of cover crops, aiming to have plants growing in the field for as many days as possible.

Livestock to extend rotation
He is also taking ewe numbers from 100 to 500 head. The larger flock will graze a grass-based legume mix for one year in the rotation, which he is extending to eight years.

Other crops provide grazing for store lamb finishing, where numbers have risen to 1,500 a year since his appointment.

These have made a profit of £7 to £22 a head during James’s years at Holkham.

After a close examination established that it costs £3.48p to produce a kilogramme of beef on the estate’s relatively low input system, he will sell more animals privately as strong stores rather than finish them.

With winter housing costs of £15 a head a week, he is also looking for opportunities to extend the grazing season.

Fourteen employees report to James, with four currently on a three-year graduate scheme which James designed.

Regular staff appraisals, a structured training programme and rigorous health and safety observance are key elements of his management approach.

He is a founder member of a group of four farms, which initially joined to share a sugar beet harvester.  They benchmark costs and share agronomy, staff training and knowledge.

His role also includes briefing the estate’s full-time education team on farming. In addition, James hosts about 20 farm tours a year, from Young Farmers’ Clubs to farm discussion and general groups.

Five-year plan
James’s strategy for the next five years is to produce high quality, high yielding food, energy and biodiversity crops and to be financially viable without current CAP support levels. He is also looking for a suitable carbon tool.

“We will be using less inputs of ag-chem, fertiliser, fuel and metal and our carbon emission output per kg of food produced will be less than today,” he says.

The plan includes ending the use of insecticide within two years to raise pollinator and other beneficial insect numbers. “There is no conflict between food production and looking after the environment,” he says.

There will also be more sharing of staff, kit and knowledge.

What the judges said

James manages a complex farming business with many logistical challenges. Developing a professional team is an important part of his approach to balancing profitable, quality food production with environmental considerations.”

Summary

The judges liked
Organisational skill in managing complex business, involving nine farms running separate accounts
Introduction of graduate scheme to recruit, train and retain talent
Focus on soil improvement – wide-scale cover cropping and integration of sheep into arable rotation

Farm facts  
Six-year rotation including potatoes, winter barley, oilseed rape, winter wheat, sugar beet, spring barley and maize for anaerobic digestion
325 beef sucklers plus all followers – total 1,000 head
Sheep flock expanding from 100 to 500 ewes
Extensive grazing on nature reserve

The numbers
• 3,995ha owned, tenanted and contract land for which James is responsible
• 9 separately costed farms
• 8 Higher Level Stewardship agreements
• 15 farm staff
• 3,000 visitors to Holkham’s Open Farm Sunday event

Peter Cartwright

Revesby Estate, Boston, Lincolnshire

Peter Cartwright’s nine years at Revesby have seen him take the arable enterprise from a heavily tilled operation, through min-till and now to about 15% direct drilled.

Peter Cartwright

© Tim Scrivener

He has altered the rotation drastically to improve sustainability, made big changes to machinery policy and restructured staffing.

Cover crops were introduced seven years ago and he is experimenting to find the best mix. A move has also been made to 10m controlled traffic farming.

A focus on soil health means Peter will not grow maize. An extensive drainage plan is under way at his instigation, with payback from this is already being seen.

Potatoes and vining peas are gone, with the peas replaced with beans for seed. These produce the estate’s highest gross margin, with a budgeted 5-5.5t/ha yield.

Dropping second wheats, the introduction of more spring crops and cultural changes have helped control severe blackgrass and improved soils, also leading to lower diesel and wearing metal use but without a yield compromise.

“Although blackgrass is still present, we are in control of it and not the other way around,” says Peter, who uses no insecticide on winter wheats or beans.

Adapts to improve
Close examination of machinery performance often leads Peter to adapt standard kit. He constantly questions how he could get a better result and is not afraid to admit the odd mistake.

He manages a wide range of other enterprises including the woodland, a firewood business, fisheries, venison, a horse livery and five biomass burners.

This has led him to restructure staffing, appointing a lead worker and giving each team member a clear area of responsibility. Widening their roles to other enterprises has increased efficiency and provided more variety of work.

Health and safety is top priority and Peter aims to inspire positive change. Annual appraisals include the opportunity for staff to assess him too.

All team members have an iPhone, enabling remote access to documents such as accreditation material.

Peter draws up the arable budget and those for other enterprises he manages, with full control of input purchases and all produce sales.

Extensive trials aid decisions
He has developed a relationship with Agrii, leading to the farm becoming a technology centre. It also hosts the AHDB national spring wheat trials.

Eighteen 1ha winter wheat trials last year helped with variety selection and the work has led to several big demonstration days in areas such as direct drilling or very shallow cultivators.

Peter usually forward sells about 70% of expected production if the price fits the budget. Key to this strategy is close knowledge of production costs, where he sees dramatic improvements as he moves to 100% direct drilling.

New markets
Keen to discover new markets, he is trialling a spring oat for the drinks market and growing 1ha of chickpeas to see how they can be managed with the farm’s kit before scaling up if a market can be secured.

He hopes to be an early adopter of the new ELM scheme.

“Within five years, we will have moved to 100% direct drilling and have a complete carbon footprint for the farm; we may even be starting to see this being used by other businesses to offset their carbon impact,” he says.

Peter is heavily involved in the estate’s relationship with its local community, including hosting Open Farm Sunday, helping create the estate’s monthly newsletter and making short videos about what is happening on the farm.

He also holds many local Young Farmers’ Club visits and other clubs, as well as farm walks.

What the judges say

Peter’s enthusiasm and determination mean he constantly seeks marginal cropping gains, testing alternative approaches and techniques, while considering how best to motivate and employ his team across a wide range of enterprises.”

Summary

The judges liked
• Extensive trials and development of technical partnerships
• Thoughtful approach to staffing as arable operation changes
• Cost control, aim for profit without subsidy guides decisions
• Machines costed individually
• Improving performance in 500 head of parkland deer

Farm facts
Diverse enterprises – arable, horse livery, woodland, fishing and let property, parkland deer, biomass burners
• Soil, nutrient and organic matter all mapped
• Variable rate seed and fertiliser
• Mid-tier stewardship on farm and higher level for woodlands
• Arable rotation including wheat, barley, OSR, beans, oats, sugarbeet

The numbers
• 1,256ha
Cropping
240ha Woodland
3 Full-time staff
500 Parkland fallow deer
5 years Plan to move to direct drilling

Peter Eccles

Saughland Farm, Pathhead, Midlothian

Since Peter’s arrival in 2014, Saughland Farm has been transformed from a traditional mixed farming operation to a forage-focused system based on intensive rotational grazing.

© Angus Findley

This runs alongside extensive agri-environment and conservation measures.

The permanent pasture acreage has dropped dramatically, replaced mainly with grass leys, while more kale, swedes, herb swards and fodder beet are grown, reducing reliance on bought-in feed.

Peter’s focus on productivity has seen output rise from 520kg to 668kg liveweight a hectare between 2015 and 2019.

Extensive breed changes
He has more than doubled ewe numbers, switching from lambing 950 Scotch Mules indoors to 2,100 Aberfield ewes and hoggs outdoors. Performance recording with comprehensive electronic identification management has helped establish a self-replacing nucleus “A” flock.

Cattle breeding has also been changed to a self-replacing, closed herd of 90 spring calving Aberdeen Angus and Hereford cross cows, more suited to the land and their progeny to market requirements than the Limousin crosses that preceded them. Bought-in finishers bring cattle numbers to almost 240 head.

Significant investment in technology and equipment, including a Clipex sheep-handling system and recording setup, means the farm employs less labour than when Peter joined. An app is used to record stock movements and field work – a big help in managing the 100 paddock system.

Genetic improvements led to the private sale of 16 home-bred rams in 2019 and, this year, Peter has introduced an incentive scheme for flock manager Owen Gray to manage sales and earn a commission.

Saughland lamb and beef is sold deadweight through multiple outlets, depending on specifications. Store and breeding stock is sold direct though social media or through auction marts. Minimising the number of days from birth to slaughter is a primary focus.

Mutual benefits
Collaboration plays a big part in Peter’s approach. He and arable neighbour Bill Gray, at Prestonhall Farms, host the successful Lothians Monitor farm project, while an innovative agreement saw cattle from a west-coast farm overwintered on a three-way profit sharing basis.

Arable work on the spring barley, winter oats and potato ground is carried out by Bill Gray, while a field swap arrangement with Mr Gray also allows finishing of bought-in steers on a red clover ley. Biosecurity is maintained as these are on a separate holding.

Peter also runs his own cattle and meat-box venture, with a small proportion of Saughland lamb and beef marketed through his Native & Wild brand.

The farm is in a collaborative Agri-Environment Climate Scheme which includes planting 5,000m of hedgerows, overwintered brassicas for farmland birds, species-rich grassland and wetland creation. These offer biodiversity rewards which Peter describes as addictive.

He has run a trial on target selective treatment of lambs, weighing at weaning and measuring feed available to predict performance. Only those not achieving predicted weights are treated for worms, reducing wormer use, saving costs and helping fight resistance.

More recently he has instigated an ambitious project with the Moredun Research Institute.

“The primary objective is to design a technology for outdoor lambing flocks which will log the contacts between animals or somehow monitor the proximity between them to determine the highest probability of which lamb(s) belong to which ewe. This will allow us to link lambs to their mothers, and monitor ewe and lamb performance to aid selection,” he says.

Peter hosts school and many other visits, welcoming many UK and foreign farmers, alongside his work supporting and raising mental health awareness and wellbeing in agriculture.

What the judges say

Peter’s collaborative approach brings benefits for many, he keeps a constant focus on measuring and enhancing productivity. An innovator, he takes great pride in promoting farming to the public and as a potential career.”

Summary

The judges liked
Attention to detail in recording and measuring performance
Dynamic approach to changing focus of business and enhancing productivity
Integration of intensive rotational system with environmental initiatives
Ready adoption of technology
Multiple collaborations for mutual benefit
Development and motivation of staff
Benchmarking and group discussion

Farm facts
Mixed beef, sheep and arable unit
Highly productive rotational grassland system
Multiple environmental schemes
Rental offices, storage units, let cottages and self-catering holiday accommodation
Lothians Monitor farm – learning and sharing knowledge

The numbers
• 332ha
owned plus small rented acreage
520kg Liveweight a hectare produced in 2015
• 668kg Liveweight a hectare produced in 2019
• 1,150 Head increase in lambing flock
• 4,000m Length of hedgerow planted in past year

Sponsor’s message

Safety Revoltion“We value the recognition that this award bestows on managers who lead their teams with great skill, experience and vision, while ensuring the safety of each worker, protecting their employer and the business they are helping to build.”

Oliver Dale, managing director

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