Agronomists vie to increase profits

18 January 2002

Mobile phones provide boon for wide-split unit

For the second in our series

of articles profiling farmers

weeklys 2002 barometer

farmers, Andrew Blake

reports from a family

business in Somerset

NEVER underestimate the value of new technology, says this years south-western arable farming barometer grower.

Chris Salisbury has 588ha (1450 acres) on two widely separated tenancies with his father at Bickenhall, near Taunton and at Broadleaze Farm, Yeovil, about 80% of which is arable.

There are only two other full-time staff, Paul Grabham, who looks after the 200-cow dairy on the mainly heavy boulder clay at Bickenhall, and arable operator Richard Keen. Chriss wife Sarah tries to find time to run the office and DIY livery yard.

"It is 20 miles from door to door, but we run the two farms as one unit," says Mr Salisbury. "We find the mobile phone a real boon for keeping in touch."

The farmed area, including the much lighter land on the Brympton Estate on the outskirts of Yeovil, has roughly doubled since 1995. "We plan to use contractors much more."

Harvesting is the first operation under scrutiny. The roads between the two farms are much improved, but can get very busy. Logistics are eased by Broadleaze being generally a week later ripening than Bickenhall, mainly because of later drilling after maize and roots. But the viability of replacing the aging Case 1680E is questionable, he says. "We need reliability, but cannot afford to buy a new machine."

The farm is likely to continue doing its own drilling and spraying, although a large mounted sprayer could soon replace the somewhat unreliable Chaviot, he says.

Min-till is unlikely. "We need a plough and press for the potatoes and maize anyway, and it would be hard to justify two sets of equipment. We run a KRM power-harrow combination drill with disc coulters, using the harrow mostly as a levelling board at 5-8mph."

Growth of this Shannon winter oilseed rape has been almost too good this season, says Chris Salisbury. The crop will soon need another phoma fungicide.


W wheat 226

Grass 125

Maize 49

W oats 38

S beans 34

Potatoes 31

S peas 31

Set-aside 52

AS one of the five members of the Petherton Potato Group Mr Salisbury employs one other part-time tractor driver, who works almost entirely with the potatoes.

Formed in 1980 the group grows about 182ha (450 acres), mostly prepack and salad crops, for two main supermarkets. "Its a genuine co-op," he explains. "It employs a manager and we share all the machinery and labour costs in proportion to our acreages."

All the potatoes are on the lighter Yeovil land, which until last season also grew sugar beet. "But we could never really get the sugar contents high enough." That and the rising costs of getting beet 140 miles to Kidderminster factory saw his 1000t contract recently transferred to a grower in Shropshire.

Winter wheat is the other mainstay crop, non-grass breaks being winter rape and oats at Bickenhall and peas and beans at Broadleaze.

"The land at Yeovil has tremendous potential. We have done 5t/acre – but we have also had 5t/ha." Much of the difference is down to drilling date, he says.

Good yields on the heavier land are rare. "We struggle to get 3.25t/acre of wheat or 30cwt/acre of rape. We are in the rain shadow of the Blackdown Hills and average only 26in/year, though we did get 48 last year."

Most wheat from the ACCS registered farms is Group 2 varieties destined for south-west mills, though some grain is exported from Southampton. "I tend to rely on independent broker Ed Neal for marketing. He charges £1.20/t, but I have yet to better his prices on spot deals."

A mobile 18t batch drier, due for replacement, feeds 1000t of bins for long-term storage on the two units. The balance is sold from temporary floor stores soon after harvest. &#42

RIVAL agronomists are vying to improve profitability of the combinable crops on the two units.

Advice on the potatoes is largely driven by the supermarkets and comes via PPG.

"Compared with cereals potato agronomy is relatively easy," claims Mr Salisbury, somewhat tongue in cheek. "All you need is a bit of linuron for the weeds and some blight sprays. After that its all down to timing."

Last season Agrovistas Mike Rastall and Velcourts Jon Midwood shared responsibility for advice on both units, the latter also offering access to a chemical buying group. "But it was a logistical nightmare, so this season Mike is looking after Bickenhall and I am relying on Jon at Yeovil."

Main challenge for Mr Rastall is blackgrass with confirmed herbicide resistance on some recently acquired land.

Ultra-low seed rates for the area, down below 200 seeds/sq m for early September, are Mr Midwoodss prime contribution so far this season. "Drilling 0.75cwt/acre of wheat when you are used to 1.75 takes some nerve, but so far most of our crops look very well," comments Mr Salisbury.

But he is less happy with his oilseed rape. All 6kg/ha of Shannon seed sown in the second week of August seems to have germinated, and despite recent harsh weather the crop remains over-proud. "I expect this could be our last year with it."

Potato crops to the fore on lighter land

Agronomists vie to increase profits

Wildlife protections well worthwhile

Countryside Stewardship has plenty of appeal, says LEAF member Mr Salisbury. "I am keen to sign up, even though we have some quite diverse wildlife here already."

His average arable field size is only 6.5ha (16 acres). "We have a lot of hedges and copses, and there are some quite big woods on our boundaries." But set-aside headland strips have highlighted extra potential. "We have seen more flowers in the margins." Main constraint will be finding the time to progress the environmental side of the farms, he says.

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