Friday, December 15, 2017

Modern estate upgrades farming facilities

December 1, 2017 by  
Filed under Profiles

A strong investment programme is improving the farming infrastructure for Bradford Estates. Simon Wragg reports.

Recent investment in irrigation, grain storage and chemical handling facilities aims to help ensure that Bradford Estates’ 1090ha (1500ac) in-hand Woodlands Farm stays fit for purpose
at Weston under Lizard, close to the Shropshire/Staffordshire border.

Hosting the Arable Event each June, the estate runs to 4650ha. It has its own management team and is supported by James Squier, partner in land management company Bidwells, and colleague Helen Peirson, a farm management consultant.

Day-to-day operations at Woodlands Farm – one of five in-hand farms on the estate – are in the hands of Doug McCowan of Harnage Estates, which has contract farmed the unit, run through the trading entity Newport Farming Partnership, over many years.

The estate has not been exempt from change. Weston Park, the family seat of the Earls of Bradford, was gifted to the nation in the mid 1980s. Managing the estate for its long term prosperity has contributed to decisions on investment.

Soil types

Mr McCowan explains: “We cover a range of soil types from blow away sand to heavy clay. Irrigation is essential particularly for potatoes grown for McCains – both for yield and scab control – and for salad crops grown under licence by a local farm business.”

Expanding the irrigation infrastructure has allowed the estate to spread out crops within its rotation. This has helped reduced risk of disease such as potato cyst nematode (PCN).

“It is the most cost effective PCN control available,” explains Mr McCowan. “This year we achieved a gross yield of around 29t/ac including stock feed and mids without a heavy reliance on chemicals.”

More recently a new £1.2m grain storage and handling facility has been built at Woodlands Farm. Erected in 2016, four 1000t bays feature under-floor ducting and automated fans and stirrers used principally for conditioning milling and feed wheat, oilseed rape and beans. “The capacity means we don’t have to sell any crop until we feel market conditions are right,” he says.

Adjacent to the store is a 18m 50t capacity public weighbridge accessible six days a week and
outside normal operating times by arrangement. “Being close to the A5/A41 junction it’s very accessible. An £8 weigh charge helps cover the annual maintenance bill.”

Agrochemical facility

Across an expansive area of concrete is evidence of other recent investment. An enclosed chemical handling facility has been developed after accessing £10,000 of funding in several stages through the Severn Trent Environmental Protection Scheme (STEPS).

“We run a 4200-litre capacity Knight Trailblazer 24m sprayer with a steering axle and 10-section auto shut off boom. All mixing and rinsing is done within the bunded building which also houses chemicals and empty containers.

“Washings feed to a single drainage point and then into a series of bio filters (pallet-sized plastic boxes containing a mix of straw, soil and gravel) before being discharged.”

The estate is also active in projects to limit the use of metaldehyde used to control slug damage within crops. Area payments encourage growers to use alternative controls such as ferric phosphate. “I think as an industry if we don’t wake up and be more responsible over the use of some products we will lose them altogether – Brexit or not,” he says.

Mrs Peirson adds the estate is managed with clear objectives on the protection of the environment for future generations balanced with the need to maintain and improve margins from its farm operation.

Although entry level stewardship has run its course at Woodlands Farm for the time being, field margins and other environmental attributes have been retained to help with ‘greening’ requirements for support payments.


Bright future

Looking ahead, it’s likely more land may be taken back in-hand as long term tenancies expire. The estate has 20 let farms and 145 residential properties in its portfolio, she explains.

It adds weight to the recent run of investment decisions for the in-hand operation. “It’s been one of Lord Bradford’s aims to have modern facilities (here at Woodlands Farm) which reflect an estate such as this,” adds Mrs Peirson.

Close links with input suppliers such as Syngenta and Wynnstay for plant variety and chemical trials exhibited at the Arable Event crop demonstration are expected to remain a focus helping the estate’s management keep abreast of developments in the sector.

Field-scale trial plots may add to Mr McCowan’s workload – the farm employs one other full-time and one part-time employee. But with a current crop rotation of 242ha of winter wheat, 121ha of oilseed rape, 60ha of winter barley, 28ha of potatoes, and 16ha of spring beans grown for seed, the positive impact on production and profitability could be significant, he suggests.

“Farming is one of the few industries where you don’t know what you’re going to get at the end due to the vagaries of the weather and its impact on growing conditions,” says Mr McCowan.  “For example, if we get a very dry June cereal yields can be hit hard. The trials help us to keep one step ahead,” he concludes.

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