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A step-by-step approach will help growers get the most from the government’s Sustainable Farming Incentive – delivering bigger benefits for farm businesses and for... Simpler approach to SFI can deliver bigger benefits

A step-by-step approach will help growers get the most from the government’s Sustainable Farming Incentive – delivering bigger benefits for farm businesses and for the environment, say advisers.

“While 2024 has started with the promise of numerous new SFI options to be introduced during the summer, coupled to a mixed SFI/countryside stewardship scheme, there is much to gain from making a start with the scheme as it currently stands,” says Agrii consultant Paul Pickford.

“There is little doubt that Defra has succeeded in achieving one of their main objectives for the new SFI application service which is to make it quicker and more straightforward for farmers, but it’s still a daunting task for many.

“With 2027 being the last payment under the old BPS scheme, it’s important producers understand as much as possible about what SFI offers and how they can make it work as effectively as possible in their business.”

Focus on the easy wins

The areas and business practices producers should act on first are probably things that are already being done, suggests Mr Pickford.

“To net £6/ha and an additional payment of £97 per agreement, all you have to do is test your soil organic matter and prepare a soil management plan on the nature of your soils and the risks they might be exposed to in the future.

“Most producers will be doing this to an extent anyway as part of the Red Tractor scheme and would also have carried it out under cross-compliance. Once you have done this, you also get access to a management payment of £20/ha for the first 50ha of your land.

“Making an assessment of your hedgerows, size, width, height etc., will pay you £5 for every 100m. You can then cut them every year, as long as you cut them a little higher, or you can do this every second or third year for a further £13/100m.”

On the same theme is the annual payment of £1,129 available under SFI for completing an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plan, he points out.

“Most producers will be doing this anyway as part of Red Tractor. It’s similar for the nutrient management plan and, whether under the NVZ rules or the farming rules for water, everybody should already have one of these and it’s worth £652 under SFI.

“Between management, IPM and nutrient management plans, there’s just under £2,800 on offer within the scheme and that’s a good start.”

Pinpoint priority areas

If you are going to put in new corners and buffer strips you will be taking land out of production and this is where things get a little more involved, says Mr Pickford.

“If the average yield of a particular field is 10 or 11t/ha, then it’s obviously making some good money, but there will be parts of that field, whether it’s a boggy corner or a shady bit under a hedge, that might only be doing 5t/ha.

“Choosing to grow a pollinator mix, wildflowers or some winter bird food on that particular piece of land could not only make a more positive contribution to the environment, it would make you more money.

“Those three options will all make a gross margin of somewhere just over £550/ha which could be considerably more than you would have earned by growing 5t/ha of wheat.”

Do your homework

In many cases, growers will know exactly where their least productive areas are but in some instances this may need a bit more investigation, advises Mr Pickford.

“The bad bits are obvious, but the more marginal areas will need a bit more work to identify. If an area has always produced 4 – 5t/ha that’s a given. But if it produces 7t/ha in most years and a bit more in some, that’s a harder call.

“Some of the benefits from looking at the finer detail may only be small, but at the end of the day it is the aggregation of these improvements that will make all the difference.

“Take the case of headlands for example. It could be that you have turned on two particular headlands for many years without really appreciating the implications of this.

“Looking at yield information from the last 3 – 5 years could tell you yields are down 15% win these areas, probably as a result of compaction, and a quick calculation can reveal exactly what that is costing in money terms.

“It could be that a better result can be achieved through planting some wildflowers or pollen and nectar (IPM2 or AHL1) and using that as a turning headland.

“The last thing you want to be doing is replacing profitable cropping with game cover, for example, through a lack of imagination and information or simply time to evaluate the situation properly.”