Monday, July 15, 2019

HE Dennis & Son: Family business sticks to its principles in Suffolk

December 3, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

Attention to detail is key when you are contract farmers, say Phil and Robbie Dennis.

A long-established but progressive farming family has built a sustainable and successful business at the heart of the local community in Suffolk.

Father and son team Phil and Robbie Dennis farm as part of a family partnership at Stansfield, 12 miles north-west of Sudbury. Enterprises across 1100ha of owned and contract farmed land include wheat, oilseed rape, spring and winter barley, oats, beans, peas, maize and sugar beet.

Operating as HE Dennis & Son, the family have farmed at Stansfield since 1927. As well as the home farm, the business looks after six contract farming customers within a 10-mile radius from the neighbouring Denston Estate to Wickhambrook, Chedburgh and Great Saxham.

“Our aim is to run a successful and sustainable business while remaining true to our core principles,” says Robbie. “That means attention to detail and a conscientious approach to maximising the potential of the land we farm.”

The business adopts a flexible approach on what is predominantly heavy soil, “In any given year, we will assess the situation before deciding what is best,” says Robbie. A range of cultivation and establishment options enables this flexibility.

Cropping

Rotating cultivations and crops widely in this way helps keep on top of grass weeds and challenges such as flea beetle. The aim is to maximise first wheats, which is the highest margin crop, while controlling problems such as blackgrass.

“The sugar beet and maize play an important part in blackgrass control, while giving us another spring option,” says Phil. “The first beet lifted this autumn were average but later lifted crops were surprisingly good for the year”, he adds.

Wheat is a mixture of milling and feed varieties. They include Skyfall, Siskin and Leeds – as well as Zyatt, which has recently replaced Crusoe. The five-year average yield is 9.8t/ha, with a goal to reach 10t/ha where possible.

“We like a mix of varieties because we aim to achieve premiums where we can – which has been very useful in the past couple of years,” says Robbie. “We are very market focused in our cropping choices.”

Most grain is marketed in-house, with some pools and some stored at Camgrain. “Pools are a good way of managing risk. We forward sell some, but only a limited amount. We like to leave a bit in the market so when prices move we can take advantage.”

Optimising margins

Efficient use of inputs is key to optimising margins. “We like to maximise the efficient use of inputs – whether that is fertiliser timings, seed rates or sprays. We use variable rate phosphate at the moment and may well move to variable seed and nitrogen rates in future.”

Oilseed rape has always done well on the farm – although the neonicotinoid ban has made it harder to grow. “Flea beetle is a risk we have to manage so we have moved drilling dates forward and extended the rotation to grow it one year in every four or five.

Ultimately, though, rape remains a valuable break crop, adds Robbie. “It is about keeping it at a level that is manageable. It’s one thing after another with rape – whether it is pigeons or something else – so the key is to make sure you have some, but not too much.

Spring barley has always been grown but the area has increased in recent years. “Blackgrass control and better prices mean we are growing more,” says Phil. “We were growing Propino but now grow Planet – we’ve achieved malting status for the last few years so it has been a good margin crop.”

Agronomy on the home farm is carried out by Robbie’s brother – independent agronomist Jonathan Dennis of farm business consultants Strutt & Parker. On the contracted farms, it is done by Scott Martin of Apex Agronomy.

Machinery

The most important machine on the farm is the sprayer – a self-propelled Sands Horizon with 5,500 litre tank and 36m boom. Purchased last year, it meant an increase in tramlines from 24m, which has further increased efficiencies.

A John Deere 7310 serves as a single mainline tractor. “We are not particularly keen on massive tractors – we try to keep the size down and the 7310 is a good all-rounder.” says Robbie. “We also have a smaller Case Puma.”

Until this harvest, the business was operating a Claas Lexion 770 with 12.3m header. “We are currently in between combines – we may go with Claas again but it will be a matter of seeing who comes in with the most attractive and suitable deal.”

A Farmet Fantom cultivator was purchased this year for crop establishment. “We’ve done two passes this season with the Fantom and then drilled with our Horsch Pronto. We also like to subsoil headlands when conditions are right.”

The farm has also invested, in partnership with a neighbouring farmer, in a Sly Boss direct drill. This has been purchased with the assistance of funding through the LEADER scheme.

“We are always open to new methods and the LEADER scheme has given us the opportunity to trial a new technology through bringing the capital cost down.”

The drill will arrive in Spring 2019 and Robbie is keen to engage in on farm trials involving cover crops and direct drilling to assess “where the benefits are for a heavy land farm such as ours.”

Ploughing is done where needed – including for spring crops which gave good results especially after last winter. “It meant we were able to get on a lot sooner,” says Robbie.

Full-time employee Daniel Guiry started on the farm as an apprentice and excelled to become an important member of the team. Lorry driver John Torr looks after the transport and bulk haulage side of the business.

Other enterprises

Diversifications are a key part of the business – and is an area that Robbie would like to expand. “I like exploring additional revenue streams. We live in a very rural area, which means diversification options are quite limited but we try to take advantage of opportunities.”

The farm supports other local businesses. It is home to River Glem Smallholders and Stansfield Woodland Turkeys, which rears a small number a free-range birds for a few local butchers and farm gate sales. The family also own and let out The Compasses pub next door in the village.

Other diversifications include three barn conversions, one of which has been recently completed, a single-lorry bulk transport operation and an on-farm biomass boiler.

“We are just updating our woodland management plan to send our own biomass to the plant,” says Phil. “We have grown cricket bat willows on the farm for many years and the tops from that go into the boiler too.”

The first barn conversion – which is now home for Robbie’s family – was converted using permitted development rights. The two other conversions are taking place nearby and he is looking for further opportunities in the area.

He is also exploring indoor vertical farming, producing high-value herbs, fruit and vegetable crops. “I think it has a lot of potential – and there is no reason it should be confined to the urban sphere. It is a good way of utilising redundant space and generating a year-round income.”

As for the future, Phil and Robbie say they would take on further contract farming opportunities – so long as it is sensible to do so. “Our overarching principle of attention to detail is key. We always want to make sure we do the best job possible because ultimately that benefits our clients and ensures the longevity of our business.”

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