Tenants survival blueprint
wins the day
You dont have to be big to
survive low crop margins –
smaller farms can be just as
successful. Amanda Dunn
reports from Cambs
CONTROL inputs, reduce overheads and dont be too proud to take external advice. That is the policy tenant farmer Philip Bradshaw is pursuing as crop margins tighten.
It has worked well for Mr Bradshaw who now farms 150ha (370 acres) with wife Jayne at New Hays Farm, Whittlesey in the Cambs fens. His farming skills were recently acknowledged with top honours in the Cambridgeshire County Council tenant farmers best run farm competition.
While many small farmers are concerned about the future of agriculture, Mr Bradshaw remains positive. "Theres still opportunity for small family units to prosper in the future, particularly in the arable sector. But it is vital to maintain control over inputs."
A combination of selective applications and improved technology keeps variable costs down. Purchasing good quality second-hand machinery and using self-employed staff reduces overheads. "And we take on board independent advice to ensure were on the right track."
Rotation on the mainly black fen over clay soils is sugar beet, potatoes, wheat and peas.
"Weve been a member of LEAF for four years and the ICM approach means were more reactive with agronomic decisions."
GPS soil sampling for nutrient, lime and potato cyst nematode levels is backed by insect monitoring and plant tissue testing. Those all help keep costs and chemical use to a minimum, without affecting crop quality or quantity.
"The GPS contract costs about £500, but has potential to save £2500-3000 by varying nematicide treatment alone," says Mr Bradshaw.
Monitoring insect numbers means insecticide rates can be halved. Routine plant tissue testing enables a sensible, tailored fertiliser programme.
Buying the Airtec sprayer last season brought more effective spraying, improved weed and disease control, higher work rates and an estimated chemical saving of £2500, Mr Bradshaw maintains.
A local weather station aids early blight control. "Last year we reacted to an unexpectedly early blight warning and our programme for the rest of the season was less intensive than some of my contemporaries."
Irrigation is scheduled according to neutron probe soil moisture checks.
Control of overheads is a prime consideration. Mr Bradshaw believes careful machinery purchasing and co-operation with other farms helps.
"We work on a principle of sourcing good quality second hand machinery, carrying out a strict service schedule and working the machines hard to earn their keep."
The main spraying, drilling and potato harvesting tractor, a John-Deere 6400, has 6500 hours on the clock, thanks to careful buying and rigorous servicing.
"We also make sure we know our operating costs." Cereal combining costs £40/ha (£16/acre) and potato harvesting for neighbours keeps the cost of the 1994 Reekie 2000 potato harvester down to £185-198/ha (£75-80/acre). "Contracting is carried out to spread the cost of equipment, not to justify it," Mr Bradshaw stresses.
Although contractors arent generally used at present, there may be opportunity in the future for reciprocal work with local farmers.
"I dont have a closed mind, and Im becoming more interested in the possibilities of co-operation with local farmers, both in terms of machinery and skilled labour at seasonal times."
The family run business already relies on additional input from local skilled self-employed workers.
"Until we expand, its difficult to justify a full-time employee and we have the added problem of no accommodation to offer," says Mr Bradshaw.
Independent advisors provide critical guidance on both daily operation and longer term-planning.
For the future Mr Bradshaw plans to expand further, by whatever means. He will also consider co-operating with neighbours more, on labour and equipment and joining a marketing group. More technology will be used to cut inputs without hitting output.
"Ultimately cost control has to be king, provided it does not compromise output," Mr Bradshaw concludes.
• Co-operate with neighbours on labour, equipment and marketing.
• Monitor crops to target inputs for best effect.
• Use appropriate new technology.
• Know operating costs and control ruthlessly.