Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Growing crops, sharing ideas

June 29, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

Learning from other farmers is the way forward, says Essex farmer David Lord. Judith Tooth reports.

The whole business of farming is a learning curve – and there’s no right or wrong, says Essex coastal farmer David Lord. But what drives him is farmer-led innovation.

David, who farms 750ha of mainly heavy clay soils on the Tendring Peninsula with his cousin, Guy Hunt, is a big fan of the AHDB and was part of the local group that formed around Tom Bradshaw’s monitor farm at Colchester. Through the group – which still meets – members could benchmark performance indicators, learn from visiting speakers and exchange ideas.

“The key is that everyone is quite candid about what works and what doesn’t,” he says. “This sort of exchange comes on the back of farmers having been led by the big agrochemical companies, when actually we should be listening to each other.

“Part of it is gaining confidence to try different things. And it’s also useful to talk, to gauge what you’re doing… I was concerned our variable costs were not where they should be, but actually they’re ok.

“But there were massive differences between our fixed costs, something which opened our eyes. But it can be hard to change ways, attitudes, family structures … you have to be pragmatic and realistic. I think in 10 years’ time people will look back and wonder why they didn’t change things sooner.”

Decision-maker

David is the main arable decision-maker on the family farm at Clacton-on-Sea. Following several years of min till, introduced by his father, Roger Lord, and uncle, Tim Hunt, the farm is now in its fourth year of direct drilling.

“We haven’t ploughed the heavy land for 20 years now, and it would have been hard to go from ploughing straight to direct drilling,” says David. “We were almost there with min till, we had a history of using muck, and we weren’t selling straw off the field, so we were starting off from a reasonably good place.

“Cover crops – we use radish, vetch, phacelia and mustard – make a big difference: they more than replace the cultivator, improving soil structure and worm counts. And they are central to reducing risk when transitioning from one system to another. We’ve taken £15 to £20 a tonne off our production costs.

“We keep the residues on the surface to retain moisture. Last year was very dry: we drilled in mid-March and there was no rain until May, and the crops did pretty well. This year it was very wet, but we could get on the land without moving it, and it worked ok – though we’re desperate for rain now.

“But there are still challenges: we’re still learning how to deal with blackgrass, still learning when best to desiccate cover crops.”

The biggest impact on crop performance has come from applying liquid nitrogen and phosphate with the seed at drilling: “It’s the most positive thing we’ve done, it makes a massive difference. Previously we were applying nutrients on the surface, and they took a while to get into the soil.

“Applying them with the seed is like rocket fuel: we’re seeing a lot more vigour in the early stages of growth before tillering. We saw the difference in performance between the crop and an unintended ‘trial strip’, with the crop showing a 20 per cent yield boost.”

With the coulters on the farm’s cross-slot drill already designed to have tubes for liquid fertiliser application attached to them, David sourced a second-hand fertiliser tank and plumbed the system in for £3500.

While many farmers have reduced their area of oilseed rape grown, David is upping his, from 60ha this year to 80ha next: “We’re lucky here. I don’t know if it’s a coastal effect, but we don’t get the pressure of flea beetle.

“We still get it, but for several years we’ve been growing berseem clover as a companion crop, and that seems to help – as we discovered one year when we ran out of clover seed on a 30m strip and it got hit.

“We direct drill the oilseed rape along with liquid fertiliser, and then when we roll we broadcast the clover seed, in one operation. It fills the gaps between the rows, keeps the pigeons off, helps with rooting and drainage … it ticks a lot of boxes, and we don’t need to use a pre-emergent herbicide. We just use Astrokerb in January.”

Facing the future

There is also some light land, farmed in partnership with local potato farmer and longstanding family friend, George Wright. He, and Lord and Hunt, own one farm and rent another, growing spring cereals, rye, peas and potatoes, and split profit and loss at the end of the year.

David’s wife, Liz, an ecologist, has a big influence on the way the land is farmed, and together they bring an interesting mix of ideas to the business.

“We met with Defra during the recent consultation to discuss the challenge of incentivising farmers to do what’s needed regarding biodiversity,” says David. “We need a carrot rather than a stick approach. The Game Conservancy Trust has done a lot of work demonstrating how productive farming can go hand in hand with a productive environment.

“I don’t think replacing income foregone is enough of an incentive, whereas a payment of, say, £1200 a hectare for a managed buffer strip could compete with a wheat gross margin and be fair to the farmer and enrich the environment.”

Low-lying grazing marshes, bird seed mixes and floristic margins – 14 per cent of the farm – are in environmental stewardship schemes, and, with an average field size of just over 7ha, there is a lot of boundary habitat. Hedges are cut every two to three years and coppiced on rotation.

Diversification

Guy manages the farm’s diversification projects. Five 2.1 megawatt wind turbines, commissioned in 2012 and leased out to Greencore, produce a very useful income stream and financial buffer, giving the family more confidence to try different things, such as the change to direct drilling.

“There is also a small Caravan Club site, two reservoirs for irrigating potatoes and fishing, and a purpose-built fishing lake currently run on a day-ticket basis, but with the longterm aim, once the carp are big enough, for it to be run by a fishing syndicate.

The next project, about to go in for planning, is to put five holiday cabins in an area of woodland on the farm, to offer a more exclusive setting to an older clientele than is possible on a conventional caravan site.

Up for consideration on the arable side is a camera-steered hoe, equivalent in cost to a foliar spray – which now doesn’t work, says David. With the cross-slot drill already set to eight-inch row spacings, the hoe could run easily between the crop rows.

“I’m an admirer of [Suffolk organic farmer] John Pawsey: how he gets around some of the problems he faces without using chemicals. He lives with self-imposed limits, but our limits are closing in, and hoeing is what more and more farmers are looking at.

“We’re looking at a Garford hoe; it’s a big investment, and I want to be sure it will work in our soil conditions. We’ve had lots of discussion in our group, and also at Cereals, about hoeing, and it’s interesting how many farmers are already using them.”

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