Friday, October 19, 2018

Grower shows how everyone wins from monitor farms

August 1, 2017 by  
Filed under Profiles


Colin Chappell and other cereal growers believe they have much to gain by learning from one another. Alan Stennett reports.

Lincolnshire grower Colin Chappell expects both he and his neighbours will benefit from him becoming an AHDB Monitor farmer.

Mr Chappell hopes the steering group and farmer meetings associated with monitor status will consider issues such as pollution, succession planning and soil improvement but expects the biggest influence will be economic, coming from studying the farm data.

“It’s all about getting ready for Brexit. I think we’re all too guilty of sitting back and saying ’we’re OK, we can rely on grain yields and grain prices to get us out of trouble’, rather than analysing our data on fixed and variable costs.”

Mr Chappell is a fourth generation farmer and the third to farm the 900 acre Gander Farm, which is mainly heavy clays on the Ancholme river flood plain in north Lincolnshire. He rents a further 120ha and contract farms 160ha, much of it on lighter soils away from the valley bottom, including blow-away sands.


Ad-hoc contracting is done on a further 80ha. Most of the land is under arable cropping, but 80 acres of permanent water meadows, old rig and furrow land and poor soils unsuitable for arable cropping support a 50-head Limousin-cross beef suckler herd.

The cattle provide useful fertiliser and help make better use through the year of the level of labour needed during the peak time of harvest. Calving also brings a ‘wow’ factor into the winter.

“I like that new life in February or March when it’s raw and cold – it’s a magical ‘Wow’ thing at that time of year.”

Three men, including one apprentice, are employed full time alongside Colin and his father. The apprentices tend to move on after a couple of years, but Colin feels the regular turnover of young brains is good for his business.

“They bring a different way of thinking – one was responsible for the change to all liquid fertilisers. With the contract land, which included some sugar beet, we were for ever changing between sprayers and spreaders and it made much more sense to stick to one set.”


The farm rotation used to consist of oilseed rape; two wheats, usually both winter; combining peas – ‘even on heavy clay soils’, followed by two more wheats. The second wheat has now been replaced by spring varieties, or by maize for a neighbouring digester.

Current cropping includes 420 acres of winter wheat and 115 of spring; 285 acres of winter rape; 130 of winter barley and 50 of spring and 190 of peas, two thirds spring combining and the rest for vining. There are also 65 acres of miscanthus and 150 of maize or rye, all for bioenergy producers. Everything except the rape is grown under contract.

Concerns about high levels of black-grass after rape are leading to a possible change to spring wheat in the first wheat slot, resulting in what would be a new rotation of rape, two spring wheats, and spring peas before going back into winter wheat.

Blackgrass is a perpetual problem on their heavy land, with many control products no longer effective, you “might as well pee in the tank,” says Colin – so grass weed control will be an important topic during the monitor project.

Nutrient use will also be studied. One near neighbour uses a range of proprietary micro-nutrient products, and although they were tried for two years on Gander Farm, agronomist Ben feels they are not necessarily a good economic proposition.

More targeted

“You can buy yields to a certain extent, but the figures have to add up at the end of the year. We think we need to be more targeted and possibly in a different format – we are particularly looking at foliar applications.”

A key study will be machinery and equipment levels. Colin hires in a combine for harvest, which he feels offers the combination of the freedom of ownership and the quick repair and replacement service available through a contractor.

“I like to be in control of my own crops, and hiring guarantees me a replacement machine within 48 hours, and a tyre that failed was replaced immediately without me paying a penny. I like this, but I want to be sure that it works, and the figures from this study will, I hope, confirm that.”

One piece of kit that he does own is what he calls his ‘pea-plucker’ a header that lifts the laid pea crop often encountered on his heavy land.

Colin says he was ‘persuaded’ to take up the Monitor Farm role, but he had already considered it.

“What worries me is Brexit; we need to have our farms structured for whatever is thrown at us, especially if trade deals mean we lose out.

Strengths and weaknesses

“I want to preserve this for my son, so getting a whole group of people analysing the strengths and weaknesses of my business will help me be ready.”

A built-in post-Brexit break clause in the land rental contracts will allow a detailed investigation of the future prospects once the situation is clearer.

He accepts that it will sometimes be difficult opening all his farm data to inspection, but understands that will be necessary to get the required attention to detail. He believes it will also be relevant to other farmers.

“At the first meeting, there were a lot of questions, but I’m hoping we won’t just be posing questions, but finding some answers to them.”

The discussions will not be limited to agronomy or farm equipment. Colin is keen to investigate views on joint venture farming; pollution in the adjacent River Ancholme – he only has three fields not bordered by a watercourse; soil structure and farm succession.

“Unfortunately, a local farmer passed away here recently with no succession planning – we ought be thinking about things like that.”

The next on-farm meeting will be in November, and Colin is hoping for a large and interested turnout. “You need as many people as possible on board – the more people there the more stimulating the conversation.”

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