Thursday, August 22, 2019

Challenge cup comes full circle

March 31, 2017 by  
Filed under Profiles

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Youthful enthusiasm and valuable experience have helped a Suffolk farm win a prestigious award. Judith Tooth reports.

It was only when Dennington Hall Farms was awarded the King George VI Memorial Challenge Cup by the Suffolk Agricultural Association that winning farmer Robert Rous discovered a family connection.

“We had entered the competition before, and I had always seen it as the King George VI Cup,” he says. “We were delighted to win it, but it was only then I realised it had been presented to the association in 1952 by my uncle, the 4th Earl of Stradbroke. So it’s particularly pleasing: it has the Rous coat of arms on it, so one feels it’s come home!

“We’re in the habit of taking the farm staff to the annual awards dinner in October, so we were all there when the winners were announced.”

Dennington Hall Farms won the class 3 category for farms of more than 400ha in the association’s annual farm business competition, and also the special award for Best Conservation Farm in that class.

The judges, this time all alumni from Harper Adams graduating the same year as Honorary Suffolk Show director, Bee Kemball, visited the farm last June tasked with choosing winners from some very individual farms across the county.

“They were looking at the overall farm business, but also our use of resources, and one of our strengths is a keen team,” says Mr Rous.

“We have three under 25s: Bradley Leist, the combine driver, and Mark Last, who both served their apprenticeships here while studying at Easton and Otley, and have stayed on as full-time employees, and James Chadwick, who drives the sprayer, having studied for an NDA, NVQ level 3 and foundation degree at Easton.

“Foreman Marcus Smith also originally apprenticed with us and has been here for 30 years, and Peter Davey got his 50-year long service award three years ago, and still comes in part-time – though I’m trying to encourage him to take things easier.

“I think it’s unusual to have a young team, and it brings great benefits in technical abilities, willingness and enthusiasm.”

The farm business also makes use of renewable sources of energy, with a 100kw solar array at Dennington Hall used to run the grain store at peak demand, and a further 60kw roof-mounted system at Bruisyard Hall to power the events business run there.

There is also a biomass boiler at each, fuelled by woodchips produced from 90ha of ancient and replanted woodland on the farm.

New value

“Installing the biomass boilers has brought new value to the woodland. We recently coppiced an area of ancient woodland for the first time since the 1920s, and an area of Corsican pine now has good value.

“One contractor takes out the wood we need and another comes in with a chipper and processes in a day what we need for the next six months. We also supply some neighbours with woodchips.”

The special award for conservation was testament to the central role caring for wildlife and landscape plays on the farm.

“Conservation is at the core of our thinking,” says Mr Rous.  “The landscape, and the animals we share it with, are important to us as a family. It may be a cliché, but we are custodians: Dennington Hall has been farmed by the Rous family since the mid-1400s.

“My parents and I were upset by the extent of hedgerow removal in some areas in the ‘70s; probably we over-compensated, and now we couldn’t take out a hedge if we wanted! But we get around it by farming in 60ha blocks.

“We have good numbers of yellow hammers, barn owls are doing very well, we have some grey partridge … there are linnets and bullfinches, and we have a strong population of turtle doves.

My wife took a photograph of 10 of them together in the garden last year! We have a family shoot and feed wild game birds through the winter and much of the summer, and all the other small birds benefit.”

Average field size is 7ha, with 4m grass margins around almost every field, and more than 100 ponds providing habitat for dragonflies, many species of duck, newts and, now, otters.

Hedges are cut rotationally during the winter, and those orientated north to south allowed to grow much taller and coppiced occasionally. There are 20ha of wild bird mix, 10ha of pollen and nectar mixes and 5ha of bare fallow. They are all managed under ELS and HLS agreements, which run until 2021.

As part of a project with the Woodland Trust, Mr Rous has just planted some black poplar and alder along the River Alde. He is also helping Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s project to re-introduce riffles into rivers by adding woody material to the river as it runs through marshes at Bruisyard to create more diverse flow patterns.

Since the dairy herd was sold in 2004, the farm business – 1400ha of heavy, strong land at Dennington and Bruisyard, and contract farming agreements with two neighbours, the Fosters at Badingham and the Manns at Cransford – is all arable except for a small herd of Red Poll and Friesian suckler cows.

Arable rotation

Running a mainly non-plough system, winter wheat is the main crop grown, with break crops of sugar beet, oilseed rape, spring beans and vining peas. Sugar beet area is up to 120ha, a three-fold increase on a few years ago, the result of better timing of harvest, bigger machinery, easier loading, and a window for more effective blackgrass control than is possible in oilseed rape.

“We’re fortunate that the whole crop is lifted early by our neighbour at Braiseworth Hall Farms, within the first week of the factory opening. There’s a yield penalty, but lifting later in the season would cause compaction and damage to drainage in our small fields.

“Loading with a Maus means much less carting and the crop goes more or less straight to the factory. We can then go straight into winter wheat.”

Sugar beet has also replaced some of the area previously growing spring beans: grown for human consumption, they have yielded well, but, with pulses scoring environmental points under the single payment scheme, the market has become rather flooded.

Up, too, are vining peas, grown through Anglian Pea Growers. In contrast to the sugar beet harvest, earliest drillings of peas are on lighter land nearer the coast, and so the pea crop at Dennington is the last to be harvested.

“Farming is the driver,” says Mr Rous, “it’s what enables all the other things to happen on the farm, and I like to think we run it efficiently and progressively.”

If winning the King George VI Cup is anything to go by, he’s right.

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