Saturday, February 23, 2019

Drive and determination pay dividends

February 1, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

Setting his sights high has paid off for new farming tenant Matt Redman. Judith Tooth went to meet him. 

When Cambridgeshire County Council invited applications for new tenants on seven holdings, Matt Redman was ready. Starting out as a one man and sprayer operation five years earlier, his ambition was to be farming 200ha by the time he was 30.

With an eye for spotting a gap in the market and a near inability to say no to work, his experience and range of farm machinery put him in a strong position. Now he’s the proud tenant of Oldfield Farm, Landbeach – and two further pockets of council land nearby.

“I don’t know how many other applications there were, but I think with the machinery fleet and the established contracting work, I could show I had the capacity to take on the farm,” he says. “I’d been looking for a couple of years and this one ticked most of the boxes, and it came with a yard and a house.”

Brought up on a farm between Bedford and Luton, Matt first worked as foreman for a neighbour, got his BASIS qualification, then took a gamble and bought a sprayer to begin contracting work. Soon after, he moved into Avadex for blackgrass control. 

“There was a lot of talk about it, but, being a specialist application, not many were doing it. I saw it as a two or three year thing, and then it would go out of fashion, but that hasn’t happened. I have fewer customers now, but a bigger area.

Cash injection

It’s something less for them to think about, and it’s been a cash injection for me to move forward. Spraying washed its face but wasn’t going to take me far. This was something different. It went from 40ha in 2012 to 4000ha in 2015.”

Matt now runs two 24m Kuhn Aeros and a 36m Techneat, and he’s also building his own 36m trailed machine. The Kuhns are fantastic, he says, but it’s getting harder to maintain them, production having ceased 10 or 15 years ago, and 36m tramlines are more common now.

Most of his contracts are in Bedfordshire, but he also works in Cambridgeshire, Essex and Hertfordshire. 

Having bought a tractor for the Avadex work, and not expecting that work to last long-term, Matt invested in a 3m John Deere drill that could be used on cultivated ground and direct drilling.

There wasn’t much work in the first year, he says, but demand soon grew, and in 2016 he upgraded to a 6m 750a. From 200ha, he now drills around 1500ha a year. Now a second drill, a 9m Dale Eco L, with tines instead of discs, is arriving in time for spring sowing, doubling capacity and giving increased flexibility and timeliness. 

“The John Deere drill is fantastic at seed placement – there’s no disadvantage to it – but you really need the soil in good condition in the first place for direct drilling to get the best results long term.

“The Dale is a bit more forgiving: with the tines, you’re cultivating a small strip of soil and mineralising a bit of nitrogen at that point, and clearing the path for the seed to go into fresh ground.”

Soil mapping

Matt took on Oldfield Farm in October 2017. It’s on heavy clay, and the first growing season was very wet, so he concentrated on ditching and hedge cutting, and opted for spring crops.

Without historic knowledge of the farm or area, he invested in soil mapping with SoilQuest. He also used drone sensors and devised a traffic light system to quantify blackgrass levels: red meant no winter crop, orange could mean delaying drilling, while green areas could go into winter wheat. 

“I’ll use the drones again this year, and compare the results: will the areas be smaller, bigger, will they have moved? Over the next five to 10 years we can quantify control. Also, overlaying the blackgrass map on the soil map creates a variable rate map for seed rates.” 

With last autumn drier, and with wheat seed waiting to be used up from the previous year, this season’s cropping is simpler: winter and spring wheat, and winter beans. Winter barley will be added next season, and, in time, a wider range of crops as markets are identified.

“There are some very bad areas of blackgrass here so it turned out good to use spring crops at the start, even though financially it wasn’t fantastic. I’m very keen on direct drilling and would like to move in that direction over time, but up until now some cultivations have been needed to repair damage done in the wet 2017-18.

Low disturbance

The dry autumn meant I could drill late last year with low disturbance using the 750a, so now there’s a lot less pressure on the herbicides to do their job, and blackgrass control so far this season has been good.

“Big tractors and cultivators cost a lot of money and run, so I want to avoid them if I can. Starting out my main emphasis is obviously profit, but I need to manage cash flow, so I try to use less cultivations and smaller tractors wherever possible to reduce costs.”

With the new 9m Dale drill, and a 36m sprayer, Matt is a step closer to controlled traffic farming (CTF). For now, he has a 7.5m combine: unable to find the right size header at the time, it suits the farm size and has plenty of capacity for new contract work planned this year. 

“CTF will be easy to do, as and when the combine needs replacing – though it’s the least likely to change quickly. But if I got a lot of contract work I’d change it tomorrow. While the farm on its own doesn’t justify having it, with the contracting as well, we can.

Matt is waiting to hear the result of a Countryside Stewardship application, put together with the RSPB. Hedges and small woodlands planted by the previous tenant have improved the potential for wildlife on the farm, and, with turtle doves already in the area, Matt is hopeful they can be encouraged on to Oldfield Farm. He’s already seen corn bunting, lapwing, yellow hammer and English partridge. 

“Within the agreement are 6m margins, beetle banks, pollen and nectar mixes, unharvested cereal headlands and wild bird food. But whether I actually go ahead, I’m not sure. I’d really like to, but I am really concerned at problems with late payments on cash flow.”

Future beckons

Matt, a Harper Adams graduate of Agriculture and Mechanisation, chairs the agricultural operations section of the National Association of Agricultural Contractors (NAAC) and the Bedford NFU branch, and sits on the regional NFU crops board. He also meets up each year for a study weekend with fellow graduates of the Worshipful Company of Farmers Challenge of Rural Leadership programme.

“Sitting on the crops board I can better understand policies before they happen, and that makes me better informed for my customers.

“I joined the NAAC when I first started contracting, which gave me contacts and the opportunity to learn from others, while the rural leadership programme helped with leadership, staff management, business skills, evaluating and making difficult decisions. 

“If you’re willing to say yes and do something, it takes you forward. My aim is to grow the farm, and at least double the area in the next five years, by contracting or renting.”

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