7 things to consider when you take on new farmland

Whether bought or rented, land must match its intended purpose in the existing farming system and maximise its value from the capital outlay or rental agreement.

Assessing how the land will be best used is the first step, then you should decide what infrastructure is needed to facilitate this.

See also: A guide to buying and installing cow tracks

Farmers Weekly spoke to chartered surveyor Kathryn Perkins of Edward H Perkins, Haverfordwest, grassland specialist Charlie Morgan, and Mark Tripney of I Soils, to find out what key areas should be considered when taking on new land, including:

  • What infrastructure may be required
  • How much it will cost
  • Whether you will need planning permission to make alterations

1. Do you need extra land?

You should first examine the yield possibilities of your own land before taking on more.

Always look at improving your home ground first. If you can squeeze an extra tonne of DM/ha from your 100ha by improving swards, nutrients and grazing policy, how does that compare with the cost of the new land?

Grass yields can vary widely, depending on many factors, from 4-20t/DM ha, but rented ground invariably is at the lower end.

2. Access

Once you have decided that taking on more ground is a good move, the first thing to consider is access.

Existing gateways might be inadequate – for instance, if your main holding is positioned to the west of the land and the gateways are facing east, there will be access problems for machinery if harvesting silage on the new block.

Gateway

New gateways may be needed for access © Tim Scrivener

If a new gateway is needed, the width of the road it will open onto will dictate its size. If the road is narrow and tractors and trailers will be turning right, an opening of about 6m is needed for a safe sweep.

If the road is wider, and you can pull out further before making the sweep, a smaller gateway is sufficient. For each gateway, expect to pay £300-£400 for materials and labour.

Planning permission is likely to be required for new gateways on to adopted highways. You also need to be aware of hedgerow regulations in relation to the timing of such work, she warns.

In a tenancy situation, the landlord and tenant should discuss the proposal.

If the tenant proposes a new gateway from his own land to the subject property, the landlord may agree subject to appropriate reinstatement at the end of the term by the tenant.

What a tenancy agreement should include

  • A farmer taking on a tenancy of agricultural land for grazing will do so under the Agricultural Tenancies Act 1995. Request a written copy of the farm business tenancy (FBT) agreement which sets out the rights and obligations of each party.
  • Agree improvements and repairs in advance as the legislation doesn’t compel the landlord to pay compensation to the tenant for items such as water pipes, water troughs, cow tracks or fencing.
  • Discuss in advance what each party feel is required, and which party is able to meet the costs of these items. For example, the landlord may agree to pay for the purchase of fencing materials and the tenant then pays for the installation. The parties may agree there is no compensation payable at the end of the term for the item.
  • All of this should be confirmed in the tenancy agreement.
  • To claim compensation at the end of the term, the tenant needs written consent from the landlord for any improvement works.

Source: Kathryn Perkins, Edward H Perkins, Haverfordwest

3. Fencing

The intended use of the land will influence whether electric fencing can be used to stock-proof boundary hedges or if a permanent fence is needed.

If the land is to be heavily grazed, electric fencing will do the job, because stock will graze under it to prevent overgrowth shorting the charge.

At about £6/m, sheep-wire-style fencing is more expensive, but is a sensible option if you will be locking the field up for silage too, because electric fence lines become hard to manage in this situation.

Sheep wire fencing

Sheep wire fencing © Debbie James

4. Electric

Solar-powered energisers are an option for powering electric fencing if you can’t hook up to your existing supply.

Another option is to approach a neighbouring property owner and offer an annual payment to plug into their supply.

5. Water

The class of grazing stock and their peak water demand will dictate how many troughs are needed. Milking cows have a much greater demand than youngstock.

Measure the rate of water flow:

  • Mark the water level on the side of the trough.
  • Bucket out a known volume of water while holding the ballcock up.
  • Push the ballcock right down and time the trough refill back up to the mark.
  • Compare the measured flow rate with the desired flow rate. As an example, 200 cows drinking 14 litres/hour have a demand of 2,800 litres/hour.
  • To calculate litres/minute, divide this figure by 60. In this example, the water flow required is 47 litres/min. Therefore, it should take four minutes 15 seconds for 200 litres to refill.

If the flow is insufficient, options include drilling a borehole or installing a water storage tank with a pressurised system. A gravity-fed system may also be an option.

Water trough

Ensure you have enough water troughs available © Debbie James

As a rule of thumb, for a group of 120 six- to eight-month-old heifers, allow one trough in every five acres (2ha). For larger cattle, make sure they do not need to walk more than 200m to get to water.

Budget about £500 for the cost and installation of each trough.

6. Soil fertility

It almost always pays to improve soil fertility, whether the land is owned or rented.

A soil test costs as little as £10/field. When you balance that against an annual rent, it is the best money you will spend.

Testing will enable you to find out what level of investment is needed to get the land producing enough dry matter to get the payback from the land.

It’s advisable to test soil before taking on new land or asking if an existing analysis is available.

If the analysis shows a pH of 5.5, this can reduce nitrogen efficiency by up to 23%; lock up phosphate and reduce grass yields by as much as 40%. It can also have an adverse effect on elements, such as cooper and therefore reduce fertility, cause poor animal growth rates and affect soil structure and drainage. 

The ideal pH for grass is 6 and for clover the pH should be 6.2. You will need to spread 3-4t of lime/acre (7.5-10t/ha) over two seasons to correct a pH of 5.5.

If lower, 1t/acre (2.5t/ha) of lime will lift the index by 0.2 after 12 months. Lime should be applied at a maximum of 2t/acre or 5t/ha.

This may seem expensive if you are taking on a short-term let (5 year FBT), however, the fertiliser cost saving alone will equate to £50/hecatre/year. In fact the payback of lime can be in the region of 4:1. 

Many tenancy agreements require minimum levels of soil nutrients to be maintained at stages within the tenancy and at the end.

Tenants should review the wording in the agreement clauses carefully to avoid being obligated to put land in better condition than at commencement, particularly if they only have a short-term occupation.

For longer lettings, such obligations may be appropriate.

7. Sward improvements

A ley needs a minimum of 50% ryegrass to deliver a return.

Sward with ryegrass

© Debbie James

Stitching in seed costs £30-£40/acre (£70-£100/ha) for the cheapest seed and £20-£30/acre (£50-£75/ha) in contracting fees. However, you won’t get a percentage return until year two. After then, the return will increase year on year.