Bold plan to turn UK farmers into world beaters

Productivity and competitiveness are at the heart of the latest plan to revitalise UK agriculture. 

A major plan to increase the competitiveness of UK agriculture will encourage farmers to share knowledge as they ramp up productivity to meet changing demand for food.

Launched by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), the three-year strategy aims to give farmers the tools they need to help ensure their businesses thrive as the UK leaves the European Union – and beyond.

Major challenges alongside Brexit – which is likely to result in lower direct subsidies for British farmers – mean UK agriculture needs to up its game in an increasingly competitive and uncertain world, says AHDB chief executive Jane King.

See also AHDB responds to Farmers Action criticism

“To become world class, farmers and growers need to become more productive,” she says. “This is not just in terms of the crops grown and livestock reared – but in the way inputs such as fuel, water and labour are used.”

Called Inspiring Success, the AHDB strategy for 2017-2020 was launched on Thursday (1 December). It outlines ways farmers can become more competitive, more productive, more responsive to consumer demands and more resilient to market volatility.

Farm Excellence

A greater emphasis on knowledge exchange will see the AHDB set up a Farm Excellence platform to encourage collaboration between farmers and industry stakeholders. The overall goal is to create a world-class food and farming industry able to compete on the global stage.

“We have realigned all our activities with this in mind,” explains Ms King. “There is a need to knit together the industry’s fragmented knowledge exchange landscape to deliver innovation and best practice.”

She adds that AHDB is exploring how it can work better with agronomists, vets, universities and commercial companies to improve knowledge exchange. “This will put farmers and growers at the heart of innovation delivery on-farm and delivery of the right business skills.”

The strategy is based on the view that volatility is the new norm. The industry also needs to find new ways of coping with fewer chemicals and antimicrobials, it says. AHDB is setting out to challenge received wisdom and stimulate debate, says Ms King.

“We have already made steps towards this with our Horizon reports on Brexit, and we will be looking to build on our international benchmarking and data collection work. This will help us provide more insight and analysis to learn from the best.”

AHDB’s four strategic priorities

  • Inspiring British farming and growing to be more competitive and resilient
  • Accelerating innovation and productivity growth by coordinating R&D and knowledge exchange
  • Helping the industry understand and deliver what consumers will trust and buy
  • Delivering thought leadership and horizon scanning.
  • The strategy is open for consultation until 9 January 2017. To have your say, visit the ADHB website  

International benchmarks to ramp-up competitiveness

UK farms will be able to compare their business performance with similar farm enterprises overseas as the AHDB strives to make UK agriculture more internationally competitive.

Due to be launched in early 2017, the international benchmarking service will enable UK producers to see how their farm businesses compare with equivalent enterprises in a range of countries that include Ireland, Holland, Germany, Australia, Argentina and the USA.

“The aim is to hold a mirror up to the industry – to scrutinise ourselves to see where we can do better,” says AHDB chief executive Jane King. A medium-sized UK beef producer, for example, would be able to compare its performance with a medium-sized beef producer in Argentina.

“We don’t want to beat farmers up – we are not telling people they’re not good enough. What we want to do is get British farmers proud about what they are doing and excited about the opportunity to ‘ramp up’ competitiveness. The competitor is not the farmer next door, it is the farm overseas.”

Currently in beta testing, a whole-farm benchmarking programme known as Farm Bench will integrate the AHDB’s existing CropBench and StockTake systems – giving users an overall assessment of their business in terms of performance costings.

UK farms will be able to compare their performance with similar farm enterprises overseas as the AHDB strives to help make UK agriculture more internationally competitive.

Due to be launched in early 2017, the international benchmarking service will enable UK producers to see how their farm businesses matches up to equivalent producers in countries including Ireland, Holland, Germany, Australia, Argentina and the USA.

“The aim is to hold a mirror up to the industry – to scrutinise ourselves to see where we can do better,” says AHDB chief executive Jane King.

A medium-sized UK beef producer, for example, would be able to compare its performance with a medium-sized beef producer in Argentina.

“We don’t want to beat farmers up – we are not telling people they’re not good enough. What we want to do is get British farmers proud about what they are doing and excited about the opportunity to ‘ramp up’ competitiveness. The competitor is not the farmer next door, it is the farm overseas.”

Currently in beta testing, a whole-farm benchmarking programme known as Farm Bench will integrate the AHDB’s existing CropBench and StockTake systems – giving users an overall assessment of their business in terms of performance costings.

Strategy aims to harness Olympic cycling team methods

GB team pursuit, Rio, 2016

GB team pursuit, Rio, 2016 © SWpix.com/REX/Shutterstock

Lots of small changes to a farm business can generate a big improvement in overall performance – similar to the successful strategy employed by the British cycling team at the London 2012 Olympics, says AHDB chief executive Jane King.

Dubbed the “marginal gains” approach, the British cycling team broke down their overall goal of winning races into their component parts – focusing on the individual aspects of the riders, their bikes and their training – right down to using antibacterial hand gel to reduce skin infections.

Cycling coach Dave Brailsford knew that tiny gains could combine to make a big difference. Such was the attention to detail – even changing riders’ sleeping positions – that small marginal gains combined to vastly improve the team’s overall performance.

The marginal gains strategy helped Team GB claim seven gold medals from 10 track events during the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. They repeated their success at Rio 2016, securing a further 12 medals – six of them gold. 

Case study: the Monitor Farms scheme

An increased focus on sharing information between farmers will see a greater emphasis on producer-led initiatives such as the AHDB’s Monitor Farms programme.

Monitor Farms bring together groups of farmers to share information – exchanging knowledge to improve business performance. Benchmarking groups enable the producers involved to compare financial information in order to make their own farms more efficient.

Simon Brock

Simon Brock

Norfolk farm manager Simon Brock became a monitor farmer earlier this year. Responsible for 966ha of arable cropping, he hosts meetings of local farmers at Swanton Morley Farms, just north of Dereham, which he has managed since 1998.

“I want to challenge what I’m doing to make sure my inputs and my costs are where they should be,” he explains.

“I also think that more heads are better than one, so it benefits us all to get farmers together from a similar area, see what we’re doing and hopefully improve our businesses.

“I’ve always wanted to do benchmarking,” says Mr Brock. “In the agricultural industry, we’re often working on our own and it’s hard to tell if our inputs are where they should be. It’s an important way to make sure we’re doing things as well and as economically as we can.” 

AHDB CEO Jane King: Strategy will deliver ‘real, tangible outcomes’ for farmers

“Just as the agriculture industry is constantly changing, AHDB is changing to ensure we address key challenges, offer the best support and extract maximum value from levy money.

A year ago, we went out to the industry and held a series of activity review meetings across England, Scotland and Wales asking people what they thought of AHDB. The responses we got were a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly.

All that information has been fed into preparing the new three-year strategy document. We are ambitious for the industry and want to make a bigger difference in inspiring businesses to success in a rapidly changing world.

Our vision is to create a world-class food and farming industry inspired by, and competing with, the best.

We need to work in collaboration with industry and work smarter to focus on those activities and tools that have a real and direct impact on farm or in the supply chain.

AHDB is uniquely placed for this. We are the independent, go-to place for trustworthy information and evidence-based research.

We now operate as one organisation sharing skills, expertise and experience. However, the outcomes will benefit specific sectors, ensuring money collected from that sector is spent in that sector and is committed where it is most needed.

Among the priorities for beef and lamb, for instance, is improving production consistency and competitiveness to deliver a more consistent case.

For cereals and oilseeds, we will be ramping-up information available to growers on soils, break crops and animal feed.

AHDB Dairy is undertaking a programme of research and development of high welfare dairy cow housing. Horticulture will be looking at long-term development of robust integrated crop management systems, while the potatoes strategy focuses on cost benchmarking.

AHDB Pork is introducing a new skills framework to bring together existing fragmented training schemes to ensure the industry attracts and retains the best staff.

While these are just tasters of the sector-specific projects in the strategy, they do serve to highlight the focus on giving real, tangible outcomes for farm business.

The strategy is now out for consultation – so give us feedback and help shape the future of farming in the UK.” 

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