Tuesday, June 25, 2019

R H Maddever Farms: Farming without favouritism

June 3, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

Judith Tooth talks to Andrew Maddever about the challenges and rewards of contracting.

Part of what I enjoy about contracting is working with different people,” says Suffolk farmer and contractor Andrew Maddever. “Without it farming can be very insular.”

Andrew farms in partnership with his wife, Sarah, father, Hugh and mother, Ann. As well as the family farm at Whepstead, near Bury St Edmunds, there are five contract farming agreements and additional land on farm business tenancies, spread from Lavenham to Newmarket.

Two full-time employees work across the business: Jamie Matthews on sprayer and combine, and Jamie Drury on cultivations, drilling and fertiliser. Sarah looks after crop recording, health and safety, staff training and pay roll. She also works as a grain buyer for Harlow Agricultural Merchants. Farm secretary Cheryl Lee is responsible for book keeping.

Andrew and Sarah’s son, Henry, is back on the farm for a few weeks before starting his second summer with OJ Neil for the rye and straw seasons, having completed the first year of his degree at Easton and Otley College.

Meeting expectations

“I enjoy the challenge of meeting everyone’s expectations – which are very varied, with some focusing largely on the aesthetics of their farms and others entirely on the bottom line,” says Andrew. “But they are thought of and treated as one unit without favouritism.”

On one of the farms 130ha of flower rich margins and winter bird food have just been sown  as part of the new Simplified Stewardship scheme. Yield mapping and 11 years’ of contracting experience on the farm made it clear year on year which areas were not performing. Now, with those out of production, average yields across the rest of the farm will rise.

“We’ve got a mix of 4m and 6m margins, and larger areas of less productive land, including a 20ha plot of very wet land that couldn’t economically be drained. The scheme gives a very good financial return, and that’s what I’m most excited about, that’s the main driver: the economics stack up, and it satisfies a lot of people.”

A further 30ha of Breckland is in arable reversion, along with 30ha of low input spring cereals, and two 1ha stone curlew nesting plots which yield a successful breeding pair most years.

Overcoming challenges

Most of the land, though, is Hanslope series clay, growing wheat, malting spring barley – largely for blackgrass control, spring oats, marrowfat peas and beans. Oilseed rape is becoming “extremely risky” to grow, with so many potential difficulties in the first month of crop growth.

While some of his landowners remain committed to sugar beet, Andrew doesn’t grow it on the family farm, regarding the economics of sugar beet as “very questionable” now.

Cultivations have undergone a gradual transition in the past 15 years, from deep heavy tillage to shallow cultivations, with a current depth of 5-10cm working very well, albeit in two relatively easy autumns. But there’s no question in his mind that economics, as well as uncertainty around continued support, will drive further change.

“I’m assuming there will be no support, and trimming costs to suit. But whatever we do has to maintain yield.”

Direct drilling

With that in mind, last autumn, having previously experimented with various direct drills, Andrew set aside a field to trial three machines: a Weaving GD, a Horsch Avatar and a Sly Boss. He was looking for evenness of establishment, design and longevity and dealer back-up and spares availability.

“The drills were used in a second cereal position, so it was a tough test, with dry conditions and a lot of residue. One drill seemed to shine above the others, but harvest will be the deciding factor.

“When I was trying to direct drill four or five years ago I wasn’t in the right mindset, I was still in a cultivations mindset and I wasn’t allowing the process to work as it should. Now I know there’s far more to it than just drilling with a different machine, and that I’ll need to make more radical changes to the rotation.

“It’s essential we roll it out across a large part of our own farm first before implementing it at scale on the contract farms.

At the moment I’m very nervous of sowing spring sown cereals without light cultivations – my overriding concern is what happens in a wet year when undisturbed ground takes forever to dry – so autumn sown first wheats are the most likely candidate.

But I get the principle: direct drilling sells itself on improved soil health, long term sustainability, a reduction in fertiliser run-off and leaching, and ultimately a way to continue farming – if that’s what’s required by our government – at a lower cost.”

The continuing loss of chemicals is a big worry. The announcement earlier this year of a ban on chlorothalonil, used to control septoria in wheat and ramularia in barley, will be yet another dent in the armoury against crop diseases.

“Then there’s Reglone, which we use to desiccate the pea crop pre-harvest to retain green colour and ensure even ripening. This will be the last harvest before its use is banned. We shall consider carefully the implications of planting the crop next year now it will no longer be available.

“Every time we lose another product we rely more on the ones that are left, increasing the risk of resistance to them and the likelihood of them leaching, therefore the risk of these being revoked in the future also increases

“I worry that going forward we’ll be channelled into growing varieties that offer superior disease resistance but possibly don’t offer the quality traits the domestic market requires. I also worry about the seemingly increasing rapid breakdown of resistance in some varieties.

“I can see a situation where wheat and spring barley are the only crops worth growing.”

Future plans

Then, of course, there is the uncertain future of glyphosate, and the impact of such a ban on direct drilling. The prospect has had Andrew looking over the hedge of one of his neighbours, organic farmer John Pawsey, with growing interest.

“There are definitely organic principles that can be and probably will be used going forward. I remember saying 20 years ago, the day I have to go organic is the day I stop farming … but as you get older you change your views. If we do lose glyphosate I’ll certainly be asking if we should be organic.

“The thing that interests me at the moment is John’s inter-row hoeing. While it looks like it would be difficult in a no-plough scenario, it’s the principle I’m looking at: if we lose glyphosate I’m sure this kind of operation will become a necessity.”

It seems he’s not the only one looking over the hedge: Andrew sees a new enthusiasm for communal learning: “Current economics mean making any mistake is costly, so farmers are more prepared to learn from their neighbours through benchmarking and farmer meetings.”

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