3 September 1999


The Arable Stewardship

scheme has been running

for 18 months, and the first

years crops are harvested.

Andrew Swallow visited a

Shropshire farm profiting

from being in a pilot area

for the scheme

ARABLE stewardship takes countryside stewardship a step further. It pays on cropped areas as well as for non-cropped environmental measures. That can boost profit substantially, as one Shropshire grower has discovered.

David Pierce farms 130ha (320 acres) at Burlington Farm, near Shifnal, in the West Midlands pilot area of the Arable Stewardship scheme. He was in the first wave of growers accepted onto the scheme.

While he appreciates the environmental objectives of the policy, hard financial figures, drawn up by farm consultant John Harmer, prompted his decision to join.

"We looked at it and said Hang on, theres an opportunity to increase farm income by quite a bit here," says Mr Harmer. Calculations showed an extra £6500 could be added to the bottom-line. (see table)

The scheme is made up of a menu of options, each of which is designed to benefit wildlife. Payments are made to compensate growers for possible reduced levels of crop income under the options they implement.

"Part of the principal is to not look at any item in isolation but to integrate them into a plan. Thats what is needed for acceptance," says Mr Pierce.

At Burlington, that plan has introduced uncropped field margins, conservation headlands, a beetle bank across the largest field, and more spring cropping.

"One of the best payments is for overwintered stubble followed by a spring cereal undersown with a grass ley," says Mr Harmer.

To take advantage of that, and solve a specific weed problem, undersown spring barley and peas have replaced winter wheat and sugar beet in the rotation. Sugar beet is now grown on land off the farm taken on a farm business tenancy.

"I should emphasise the beet wasnt taken out just because of Arable Stewardship. Theres a serious mugwort, or "wild chrysanthemum", problem on this farm," says Mr Pierce.

Peas will be a better entry for first wheat than sugar beet, and undersown spring barley in place of late sown wheat should see little difference in margin, he adds. Before rain struck this harvest, Chariot was coming off at nearly 7.5t/ha (3t/acre).

The overwintered stubble prior to spring crops attracts a £55/ha (£22/acre) payment, but when followed by undersown spring cereals that is increased to £200/ha (£81/acre).

If the resultant ley is retained to the following July 15, without fertiliser, manure or slurry, a further £400/ha (£162/acre) payment is available. Such leys must not be cut between Mar 15 and July 15, but they may be grazed at up to 0.75 livestock units/ha. "It is eligible as forage area, which could be useful for a bull beef unit," says Mr Harmer.

Growers with fixed costs of £500/ha (£200/acre) may say the payment is not enough. "But here there are no fixed costs other than the rent," he stresses.

Faced with declining income, and rising overheads, Mr Pierce sold all his machinery in the late 1980s, and now uses contractors for all operations. That policy allows him to work part-time as a university lecturer, and gives greater flexibility to change cropping.

"We are starting every year with a clean sheet," he says.

Arable Stewardship imposes some restrictions on that flexibility, but Mr Pierce stresses that flexibility is a feature of the scheme. The commitment to overwinter a set "base" area of stubble annually gives a 20% buffer above the base area which is still eligible for payments. Conservation headland options are: no summer insecticide, no summer insecticide and reduced herbicides, or no insecticide, reduced herbicide, and no fertilisers.

At Burlington, the plan is for all cereal headlands to be entered as no summer insecticide headlands, and one fields headland to have a reduced herbicide regime.

"The reduced herbicide headland was the part of the application I was most worried about. But in actual fact you are allowed to control blackgrass, wildoats and sterile brome. And you are allowed to use Eagle up to Mar 31, so you can control cleavers," says Mr Harmer.

Rotating such headlands around the farm should prevent a long-term build-up of problem weeds, adds Mr Pierce. "It might not look as good cosmetically, but I look at it economically," he concludes.

What is Arable Stewardship?

Arable Stewardship is a MAFF scheme which pays growers to manage their land in ways which encourage wildlife. Farms in two pilot areas, one in the West Midlands, one in East Anglia, are eligible for the five year scheme. "Were almost offering growers an alternative crop – food production and environmental gain. The whole point is that it is the first scheme that sits inside conventional farming," says Andrew Sherrott, project officer in the West Midlands. He is keen to see more applications from hard-nosed, financially-driven, arable businesses in the pilot areas before the third and final entry deadline of Mar 31 2000. Many of the original applicants already had environmental measures in place on their farms, often with game interests. "We need both poachers and gamekeepers in the scheme," he says. Further information: West Midlands (01270-754350), East Anglia (01223-455800).

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