Friday, December 15, 2017

College farm is showcase for profitable agriculture

May 2, 2017 by  
Filed under Profiles

MidFrmr-130417-Moulton

Moulton College farm involves students in all aspects of the business. But it still operates in the real world. Simon Wragg reports.

Most farm businesses face change often driven by the harsh economics of commodity prices. And Northamptonshire-based Moulton College is no exception. Dairy has been superseded by suckler beef on the 460ha (1137ac) mixed farm estate where the core objective is to educate future generations of farmers and farm workers.

Overseeing the estate is Matthew Hague, a former agronomist with ADAS and business consultant with land management company Berrys, who has to run the farm on a commercial basis. He explains: “Under current funding arrangements for education the farm has to cover its costs. Elements such as insurance and finance charges are carried by the college but the whole unit is managed to achieve maximum profit.”

With around 150 agricultural students from a body of around 4500 full and part-time students involved in studies as diverse as sports to agriculture and construction to animal care the farm is used as a practical classroom. “We aim to involve students in all aspects of running the farm from crop to livestock husbandry to practical hands-on experience.”

Decisions

And that includes facing some of the harsh decisions farm businesses – family-run or commercially managed – have to make. “The College ran a 400-head dairy herd averaging 10,000 litres/cow until 2015. It was a good platform for students to get hands-on experience with livestock. But the cost of production was over 30ppl – unsustainable – so it was dispersed.”

Part of the decision-making process had included considering a moving to a New Zealand-style grazing system, but the College management opted instead to utilise the grazing and facilities for a newly established suckler and commercial beef herd.

“We purchased 20 Stabiliser bulling heifers which calved down earlier this year and a further 20 heifers have been bought to build numbers. As a resource it is good in so much as it’s probably the most recorded breed and allows students to study elements such as Estimated Breeding Values as well as look at performance and profitability,” explains Mr Hague.

It is run alongside a commercial herd of 30 British Blue X dairy heifers put to a Limousin bull for comparison. “To increase the practical involvement of students we’ve invested £30,000 in state-of-the-art handling facilities based on a design by Miriam Parker which now occupy the old milking parlour.”

Experience

While a local dairy farm provides practical work experience for students new enterprises are planned at Moulton including a pig enterprise, he adds. This will provide a broader learning platform for students on courses ranging from BTEC levels 1-3 at further education level and levels 4-6 at higher Education, as well as apprenticeships.

Sheep complete the livestock enterprises with 750 North Country Mules and 150 Lleyns put to Suffolk, Texel, Charollais or Meatlinc terminal sires. Lambs are destined to be sold prime direct to abattoirs to enable carcase data to be used by students. However, with light soils predominating some may go as stores where forage become short (the farm also finishes lambs on home-grown barley and a commercial pellet).

“On the arable side we have 290ha of cropping and 60ha of grass leys covering a range of soil types. These have been mapped by Yorkshire-based SOYL and we use GPS technology for variable rate N, P and K inputs as well
as variable seed rates and yield reports from the (hired in) combine.

Rotation

“Our rotation is winter wheat, winter barley, winter oilseed rape, winter wheat, beans (on heavier land), plus grass leys – the latter helping with black grass control.” The farm estate also covers 78ha (193 acres) of permanent pasture and 8ha (20 acres) of environmental cover crops. Mr Hague takes on the agronomy backed up with up-to-date chemiculture advice from Chris Page of TAG.

Students involvement in arable duties is significant during term time but restricted where term times conflict with peaks in workload. Harvest, for example, takes place after the end of the academic year). But that doesn’t detract from their involvement in monitoring crop husbandry and analysing crop inputs and margins, he adds. Weekly reports keep students up to speed with developments both for own-interest and classroom studies.

“Our aim is to give students as much opportunity to be involved as is possible as part of their education; they are our customers at the end of the day,” he says.

Recent studies have included discussion on the possible removal of glyphosate as an active ingredient in sprays for crops, use of GPS technology for more efficient use of inputs and a review of individual crop and overall farm gross margin. The emphasis is focused on the practical and commercial realities of farming for today and into the future.

But Mr Hague is keen to highlight the commercial reality is balanced with a need to care for the environment. Areas formerly managed under entry level stewardship schemes are still included in the rotation: “Like all farmers we want to demonstrate care for the farmed  environment.

“Our hope in the near future is to recruit farmers from the local area as part of the teaching staff. It will add to our current resources for students to hear and learn first-hand from someone within the industry,” he adds.

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