Thursday, November 15, 2018

Staff are farm’s biggest strength

February 5, 2013 by  
Filed under Profiles

 

A dedicated team of employees are delivering a growing business for Albanwise Farming. Judith Tooth reports.

“Our staff are our greatest asset,” says Tom Dye of Albanwise Farming. “You can have fantastic machinery and wonderful soils, but if your staff aren’t coordinated, skilled and motivated your agri-business strategy will not be delivered.”

Teamwork is essential with 4000 hectares at Saxlingham, near the north Norfolk coast, and Barton Bendish, between Swaffham and Downham Market. The five men at each farm are very committed to the business, says Tom.

“There is a very limited staff turnover. Team members are given responsibility within their key roles and encouraged to provide input in management decisions where appropriate.”

An example of this was displayed recently during the companywide review of its wheeled tractor fleet. Financial considerations aside, the team was asked as part of the review, what would they choose? From five makes that could be serviced locally – all of them demonstrated on the farms – the team put John Deere at the top of the list.

“Overall we looked at three areas: quality of product, service back-up from the dealership – from sales through to engineering, and the UK brand supplying it – and the financial package,” says Tom. “In the end the numbers were close but the John Deere package with Ben Burgess was the best choice for Albanwise Farming. I would think Ben Burgess is the flagship UK dealer – the team there filled me with confidence.

“Eight tractors all at once is a significant sale for anyone, but we’re not ‘over-tractored’ so the tractors we have must work hard. The key is for them to be back up and running as soon as possible after a problem. All eight units have remote diagnostics through JDLink – it’s a very good system which also allows greater analysis of tractor performance, helping to assess appropriate horse power requirements in particular.

“The previous fleet of tractors was very reliable and well-backed up, but technologically we were not where I wanted us to be. We’ve made a big leap forward with John Deere’s Greenstar GPS and fuel economy from the new engines with the latest generation of Tier 4 emissions. I was also happy to take the single fuel route rather than dual fuel for ease of operation.”

Green Farm, Saxlingham, is something of a home-coming for Tom, who grew up on a small pig farm in north Norfolk and for six summers worked as a student on the farm where he is now based as Norfolk Farms Director. He studied agricultural business management at Reading University and worked in grain and potato marketing before joining the company as Production Manager in 2007 – which contract farms for parent company Albanwise Ltd as well as external farming business partners – six years ago.

With light to medium sandy soils, Green Farm has a principally plough-based system to ensure a fresh seedbed for a straight forward 6 year rotation of wheat and both winter and spring barley, with break crops of oilseed rape, sugar beet, vining peas and double cropped dwarf beans. A good mix of varieties helps the risk management of the main crops. Hill Farm at Barton Bendish, managed by Richard Bailey, ranges from sandy loam to heavy clay, and runs a similar rotation, including spring beans.

Non-inversion tillage is used before and after oilseed rape in the main to aid timeliness of operations. A Vaderstad Topdown at Saxlingham, and Sumo equipment at Barton Bendish are principle tools used. With no livestock to provide large quantities of organic manure agronomically the best crop is vining peas, and winter cover crops such as winter vetch also enhance the soil and supply nitrogen to the following sugar beet crop.

SOYL variable rate technology is now being used on 20% of Barton Bendish and will be rolled out at both Norfolk farms within the next three years as part of the targeted input strategy to improve in field crop performance.

“The economics of sugar beet are becoming less certain, and we need a combination of improvements including higher-yielding varieties for the crop to remain viable,” says Tom. “The imposed maximum 120 kg/ha of nitrogen isn’t enough, particularly for post-Christmas lifts. To help we are now applying a routine third fungicide and extra trace element mixes as foliar feeds to keep the leaf green on the later lifted crops.

“I’m looking hard at renewable crop opportunities, particularly forage crops for biodigesters, which could be potential competition for the sugar beet area. We also have virgin land for root crops on both farms reserved for the future.”

Vining peas, grown one year in six go through Aylsham Growers to Pinguin Lutosa. Last year was the first time we tried double-cropping at Saxlingham, with a June sowing of dwarf beans following an early vining pea crop. The September bean harvest then still provided a good entry for the following wheat crop.

“For the beans the key is moisture at sowing – that was fantastic in 2012. We’ll do it again this year, with 200 ha of vining peas and 92 ha of dwarf beans to follow.”

Wheat – all grown for feed – is stored on farm, at Barton Bendish in the bin complex and at Saxllingham in a 5000 tonne grain store, built in 2009 with a continuous flow drier running at 85 tonnes an hour, and marketed through merchants with local delivery preferable. AtlasFram and United Oilseeds are used to deliver the best returns from the majority of the oilseed rape crop through their pool marketing facility which is performing “excellently”, says Tom. Pre-payment before Christmas of 70 per cent of the crop in store is useful, though each landowners business will have its own requirement.

The future of winter barley in the rotation is less certain, as it’s becoming harder to market mainstream varieties – several brewers are switching to spring varieties – but it does spread the efficiency of the combines at harvest. A switch to winter feed barley is one option but is not ideal on the lighter soils, or to the traditional variety Maris Otter, lower yielding but commanding a premium through H Banham based in Fakenham. Conversely the distilling market for spring barley is growing rapidly with Asia’s increasing desire for Scotch whiskeys. With this seasons seed price so high, home-saved seed, checked by NIAB, is sitting ready in the barn.

Significant investment for fixed cost efficiency has been made in renewable energy, with two 96 kilowatt schemes on grain store roofing on the Norfolk farms headlining the investment in solar energy, both installed in 2012, and wind turbines on one of the two Yorkshire based Albanwise Farms.

Entry Level Stewardship on all the Norfolk farms has resource protection and improved biodiversity as its core benefit. The many ditches and streams are all buffered with grass margins. An HLS scheme was implemented at Barton Bendish last year centring on the key objectives of increasing the wild Grey Partridge and farmland bird populations. Around 18 km of hedges have been planted in the past five years. There are also plans to manage more intensively the 300 hectares of woodland on the Albanwise farms, possibly producing woodchips to heat estate properties.

“Our short term key objective is to make more from the land we’re currently farming, especially as investment in new land is so expensive,” says Tom. “We are also aiming at continuing to expand our farming service to neighbours, where extending our operations delivers mutual benefit for the long term.

“The challenges of climatic volatility and yield plateaus require more sustainable and visionary soil, operational and marketing strategies to enable progressive financial return. I believe we have the staff, machinery and management capabilities to remain at the forefront of agri-business backed by strong accounting and administration support.”

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