Sunday, November 19, 2017

Collaboration works for three Midland farms

February 2, 2017 by  
Filed under Profiles

Rob Fox edited 2

Open minds have unlocked potential for Squab Hall Farm, Warwickwhire, as Ben Pike discovers.

Thinking outside the box is an appropriate metaphor to describe what’s happening at Squab Hall Farm near Leamington Spa in Warwickshire.

Not only does its manager, Rob Fox, believe in finding better ways to farm, he shares his yard with one of the largest Box-it document storage franchises in the UK.  Formerly a 200-cow dairy, the site has diversified over the past two decades but retains a 404ha arable operation at its core.

Owned by managing partners Keith, Les and Emlyn Evans of T I Evans and Son, investment in non-farming activities also includes furniture and self-storage facilities, document shredding and house removals.

“Without the farm there’s no platform for storage and, likewise, the farm wouldn’t have survived without the diversification in difficult years,” Mr Fox said.

Born in to a farming family near Banbury in Oxfordshire, Mr Fox studied agriculture at Seale Hayne before heading back to the home farm. Realising 160ha was not enough to sustain him and his brother, he took a job at NDR arable – a 1,011ha arable joint venture near Brackley.

Mr Fox said: “It was really good experience and it made me focus on collaboration and farm management.”

Unchartered waters

In 2010 he brought his experience to Squab Hall as the first farm manager the business had employed. Despite being in unchartered waters, Mr Fox says he has been encouraged to make his own decisions and present a business case to support them.

This freedom has allowed him to follow the joint venture route and nearly double the farmed acreage. “T I Evans owns about 240ha and rents 160ha more, but I set up a joint venture which is a labour and machinery share with two local farmers who between them have about 365ha.”

David Brightman, of Brightman Farms at Gaydon, and Winston Warhust, of CH Warhust & Sons at Chesterton, wanted to stay involved in the running of their respective farms but needed someone to take charge of the operations.

The agreement struck sees Squab Hall providing all the labour while the three farms’ machinery is shared between the members. Unlike a share farming agreement, no profits are shared with grain storage and marketing  done by each individual.

Cropping and machinery purchases are decided upon jointly, while Mr Fox is responsible for manging the labour – paid for by the hour by the respective farm. He is also the agronomist for the three farms in conjunction with Strutt & Parker’s Jock Willmott.

Open-minded

“It takes a farmer to be open-minded for something like this to work,” Mr Fox explained. “As long as the equipment is operating efficiently somewhere, we’re all benefitting from it as the cost savings are huge.

“A lot of people struggle to get their head around that and a lot of farmers wouldn’t be able to relinquish that control over the operations.”

The Grade 3 soils, which grow winter wheat, spring barley, oilseed rape, spring beans and spring linseed, vary from farm to farm and even field to field.  “We have one 32ha field with eight different soil types in it,” Mr Fox said.

Squab Hall’s land ranges from a medium clay loam over gravel to heavy Kuper Marl and Evesham clay where drainage can be a challenge. There are also steep banks to contend with. Brightman Farms is generally considered one of the heaviest farms in Warwickshire.

“We get on early and we get off quickly,” Mr Fox added.

The conditions have largely driven a big decision to invest in new machinery for 2017.

Mr Fox has taken delivery of a John Deere 8370RT tracked machine for heavy draught and drilling work, and a John Deere 6175R to pull a new Horsch Leeb 4,000lt 30m trailed sprayer, replacing a self-propelled Bateman. They also have a New Holland T7.260 for seed beds and a case Puma 160.

Huge decision

“It was a huge decision to go tracked. Our wheeled John Deere 8430 has been right on the edge of horse power and grip operating on some of our banks so I think we’ll see a huge benefit. Some people will be horrified as they’re moving away from heavier tractors but I think the system will work for us.”

Mr Fox has also invested in an Isaria Sensor for variable rate nitrogen applications, moving away from a satellite based system. The farms use two New Holland combines – a CX8080 and an 880, and a home-made chaser bin at harvest to help reduce compaction.

Broiler litter and sewage sludge has removed the need for bagged phosphate and potash.

Winter wheat is planted as late as possible – usually in late September or early October – using a Sumo Trio at a six-to-eight-inch depth to prepare the ground for a Vaderstad Carrier, powerharrow or spring tines to create a seed bed for a Horsch Sprinter drill.

A robust pre-emergence herbicide campaign aims to tackle the farm’s biggest weed problem; blackgrass.  “We have confirmed resistance on all three farms so we have to be mindful that our pre-emergence programme has to be strong and Atlantis won’t deliver the results it once did,” he added.

Mapping blackgrass

But Mr Fox has found a novel, economical way of mapping blackgrass problem areas. After applying fungicides, he drives the tramlines with an empty sprayer tank flicking the boom switch on and off when he finds patches of the weed. This creates an ‘as applied’ map in the farm’s Gatekeeper software which will allow targeted applications in future years.

As a self-confessed ‘precision farming nerd’, Mr Fox is keen to utilise technology wherever possible. He tries to share information and findings through his role as an AHDB Arable Monitor Farm, hosting about seven meetings per year.

“Both combines are equipped with yield monitoring and one has yield mapping which is extremely important. All seed and nitrogen is applied variably and we’re now looking to do variable rate fungicides and PGRs. Within a year or two everything that can be done variably will be.”

And yields are on the rise. “We’ve had some good years and can average 11t/ha winter wheat. We are aiming at 4.5t/ha for oilseed rape, spring barley is about 7t/ha and beans are 4.5t/ha.”

Great strides have been made at the farm – both agriculturally and from diversified business activities. Mr Fox would like to see this continue. “It would be great to find a fourth farmer to join the joint venture as we have capacity for another 400ha,” he said.

“Collaboration is where I see our future. I think it’s hugely important and will be more so going forward. I think it will form the backbone of UK agriculture in years to come.”

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