COLLEGE FARMS TAKE THE COMMERCIAL PATH
Agricultural education has faced tumbling student numbers over recent years. But efforts to revitalise the farms at one college could reverse
that trend. Charles Abel visited Lincolnshire to
find out more
COLLEGE farms occupy an unenviable position. On the one hand they must demonstrate the practicalities of running a commercial farm business. But at the same time they must meet the teaching and research needs of lecturers. Too often they fail to achieve either option satisfactorily.
That is the view of Philip Wynn, operations director at LCAH Farms Limited, a subsidiary of the School of Agriculture and Horticulture at De Montfort University, Lincoln.
Formerly run as the farms for Riseholme and Caythorpe Colleges, LCAH Farms is now managed as a single unit with very different objectives.
"If you dont farm professionally and profitably how can you possibly teach the students anything of use," says Mr Wynn. "And unless you are running an efficient farm it isnt going to be taken seriously by the farming community either."
Running a college farm as part of an educational establishment is always going to be a compromise, he says. "An arms length relationship, which lets the farm operate commercially, has got to be better for all concerned."
He believes that the future demands of education will be very different from those of the past. "We need to produce far more competent people for the industry. The face of farming has changed greatly and education just hasnt been keeping up," he maintains.
"It is no longer a case of equipping people to farm their own farms. Farming is more than that. People need a far wider experience of whats happening, not just the narrow view of a livestock or cropping NDA." Looking at the way other industries work and challenging the status quo within farming is his goal.
Farm management will offer newcomers the most entries into farming and is an area where new recruits are already hard to find, he notes.
In Nov 1992, six months before Lincolnshire College of Agriculture and Horticulture was due to leave county council control, Mr Wynn was called in to review thefarms and create a new strategic plan.
"It was clear that there was plenty of latent potential that could be realised," he recalls. Although many changes had been implemented, because the farms were still being run for educational purposes the full benefits were not being obtained. "They werent being run as business units or being projected to students as viable business units either."
His plan had three aims – to simplify, commercialise and create a workable budget. It was accepted and accelerated as the college became part of De Montfort University in 1993.
"At no stage was the sale of the farms or the establishment of them as a profit centre only contemplated ," insists Mr Wynn.
Over the past three years the enterprise mix has changed, labour has been cut and business management opened up to give a clear view of what is happening. Nowhere is that more evident than in the universitys information room, where farm accounts, crop records and a farm diary can be called up on computer terminals.
The farm is now run for profit and provides a clear educational resource, which the university is charged for. "This all helps ensure people are getting value for money. If a charge is being made the university will ensure it gets the feedback it wants from the farm."
The first change was the formation of LCAH Farms Limited, as a subsidiary of the university. No funds are drawn from education grants or the university. "Everything we do has to be paid for out of the profits from the business," comments Mr Wynn.
A farm business tenancy provides a commercial rate of return to the university. Any profits beyond those reinvested are gift aided to the university to minimise tax costs.
"An enormous investment in repairs and maintenance was required at the outset. Our first goal was to improve what we had and that meant a lot of work on buildings, equipment and fencing," says Mr Wynn.
Attention is now turning to larger capital investments to achieve the infrastructure needed to run the desired enterprises. That includes £37,000 on effluent storage at Riseholme and £110,000 on new insulated pig kennels and straw yards to accommodate weaners and growers at Caythorpe, replacing boxes.
Next came a simplification of the enterprises. "Originally, each farm was trying to demonstrate a bit of everything. Now we have concentrated the dairy at Riseholme and the pigs and arable at Caythorpe. The poultry unit, which was losing substantial money, was returned to the college and is now let for trials work with a small demonstration unit run by the staff and students – it was just too small – and we have dropped peas and beans as crops," says Mr Wynn.
Given the poor soil conditions at Riseholme it was decided to drop arable cropping and concentrate on the dairy unit. Pedigree status and student demonstration are no longer the goals – a margin over concentrate of £1550 and output of 7500 litres a cow is the new aim.
"Were getting very close and if it hadnt been for the dry summer, which forced us to buy forage in July and August, we would have been there this year," says farm manager Tony Wright. To get away from unreliable grass more maize is being grown and lucerne will be tried for the first time this year.
The herd now numbers 155-160 milkers, slightly down on five years ago, since no extra quota has been leased in. A switch to complete diet feeding has brought a big improvement in productivity. Over the past year proteins have improved from 3.1 to 3.35%, with a goal of 3.45%.
Riseholme also accommodates the farms set-aside. That provides sheep grazing in autumn, before the animals are moved onto sugar beet tops at Caythorpe.
At Caythorpe spring malting barley has become a core crop again, reflecting commercial practice on the limestone heath. Linseed was dropped, but second early Marfona potatoes for green top bag sale are retained, despite the lack of irrigation. "We felt it was important, given the crops prominence in Lincolnshire," comments Mr Wright.
Although peas and beans could be a viable crop, practicalities prevent their inclusion. "We cant grow everything, there would be too many enterprises," Mr Wright explains. "It is better for the students to go to a local farm with 200-300 acres of a crop and see what they are doing commercially, rather than see 12 acres being grown here."
Equipment has been rationalised, with just two key tractors at Caythorpe, and a one-and-a-half hour journey made when Riseholme needs foraging, reseeding or ploughing work. "Logistically it isnt ideal, but it is more efficient than fully equipping Riseholme," Mr Wright notes.
Educational facilities are now provided to the university at a cost. Fees are agreed for practical sessions, field walks, project work, provision of information and such like.
"Windows" measuring 10m x 10m are left untreated in crops for students to see the effects. There is some interplay between students and the farm, including tractor maintenance work which is charged back to the farm.
Students also help with some of the novel work, including weighing trials on the pig unit, feeding regimes in the dairy and pig behaviour studies.
There is some hands-on machinery experience, but most equipment training is organised by the university on grass fields. "You have to remember that this is a commercial business, so we dont want students making mistakes with fertiliser or spray applications," comments Mr Wright.
On the livestock unit one-to-one training is available, particularly for veterinary students from Liverpool University seeking practical experience.
Meanwhile, Mr Wright gets on with managing all the enterprises, using advice where needed. All crops are walked by an independent consultant, who organises group buying of fertilisers, chemicals, seed and fertilisers.
The direction of LCAH Farms is decided by a board of nine directors – five from farming and four from the university.
New initiatives are arriving at a steady rate. The farm is a regional trials site for Arable Research Centres and a renewable energy project is under way in conjunction with the university. Miscanthus grass for biomass fuel, windpower and methane digestion from pig slurry, are all being combined into one unified power plant.
Mr Wynn is pleased with the farms performance. "Bearing in mind the high maintenance and repair costs weve faced, were comparable with local farms. It has taken three years to get the whole concept straight and good enterprise results.
"We aim to stay ahead in the farming game. That is important in agriculture and in education in general," says Mr Wynn. "Weve got to be like any other farming business – get our margins right, cut our costs and achieve a strong business for the future."
New ideas will be actively considered. An expansion of the pig unit is already planned, to meet stocking regulations and to allow pigs to be fattened on to 100kg. "It stands up commercially, so the board has agreed to go ahead."
More dairy cattle are not ruled out – subject to more sensible quota prices. The arable business may be expanded by contracting and renting more land as it becomes available. "I think there will be much more scope to do this at the right price in future."
A wider involvement with the local farming community and the general public is also planned, with the first farm open day due in May. Agrochemical manufacturer trials are also being sought.
Looking towards a more
commercially hard-nosed future. LCAH Farms manager Tony Wright (left) with its operations director Philip Wynn. A college farm run as part of an educational establishment will always be a compromise, says Mr Wynn.
Right: LCAH Farms, Caythorpe.
Left:Tony Wright with some of the 1996 harvest. Cereal production now takes place solely at Caythorpe. Below: Students can call up on screen farm data in the universitys information room.
• Run as limited company.
• Rent paid to university.
• No capital support.
• Fully commercial basis.
• Educational services charged to university.
• Professional and profitable business best teaching tool.
• 445ha on two farms –
Riseholme 155 cow dairy unit, grass, lucerne, maize and set-aside.
Caythorpe sugar beet, wheat, OSR, potatoes, sheep and 190-sow pig unit.
Students help with weighing trials on the pig unit, feeding regimes in the dairy and pig behaviour studies. One-to-one veterinary training is also available.
Pig performance figures to Dec 1996
Indoor UnitOutdoor Unit
12 mth3 mth12 mth3 mth
Pigs born alive a litter11.411.711.010.9
Piglet mortality %8.38.013.913.6
Pigs weaned a litter10.410.89.49.5
Pigs weaned a sow a year24.324.721.920.8
Pigs weaned a female a year22.022.619.717.1
(Pigtales Recording System.)
Gross margins 1995/96
Estimated sale price £/t118128128160170120
Area Aid £/ha269269269269452389
Gross output £/ha1,4091,1521,1521,246977843
Variable costs £/ha232208194150215134
Gross margin £/ha1,1779439581,096762709
Rolling dairy performance figures
Nov 1996Nov 1995
Milk output/animal (litres)7,4567,230
Milk price p/litre23.92823.835
Margin over total concentrates1,451.731,387.75
Margin over all purchased feed1,439.241,387.75
Margin over all purchased feed p/litre19.319.2
Source: Pauls Dairy Costings Nov 1996.
Riseholmes set-aside provides sheep grazing in the autumn, before the animals are moved on to Caythorpe.