Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Farm is ‘engine room’ for Belvoir Castle estate

April 30, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

Putting agriculture at its heart and bringing tenanted farms back in-hand is help to ensure a sustainable and thriving future for the Belvoir Castle estate, Leicestershire.

Estate director Phil Burtt and farm manager Chris Nurse are overseeing the process of farming more land as three-year Farm Business Tenancies expire. When Mr Burtt took on the farms eight years ago, some 1400 acres were farmed in-hand. That has since increased to 4000 acres.

Farming in-hand rather than letting out land takes more organising and planning, he says. But it also brings big benefits – creating the economies of scale necessary to make arable farming viable on what is one of England’s finest country estates.

“The farm is the engine room for the castle and the estate,” Mr Burtt explains. “It is very much at the core of what we do – and it makes the whole estate viable. This is an estate and the farm enables it to survive and prosper.”

Soil types vary between heavier Grade 3 clays in the Vale of Belvoir below the castle and lighter free-draining Grade 2 limestone and ironstone elsewhere. The heavier land includes inherited farms with the challenge of blackgrass.

“We’re using a spring crop one year in three or four to get on top of the blackgrass – it’s been as good as anything we’ve tried,” explains Mr Nurse. “We aren’t wedded to any single system – we will plough in the autumn in good condition and then leave it over the winter.”

Rotation

Once the weather has done its work on the heavier land, crops are established in the spring using a light Kuhn and drill piggy-backed on a Tracked caterpillar – different to the lighter land where blackgrass is much less of a problem.

A straightforward approach to the arable enterprises involves a rotation based on combinable crops  – complemented with approximately 250 acres of vining peas grown through the Fen Peas Group on the nicer land.

Some 150 acres of land is let out for sugar beet. The lighter land would also be ideal for letting out to grow potatoes but for the irrigation system, which needs investment. “All the equipment is there for water – we just need to move it around,” says Mr Burtt.

Livestock include 1500 breeding ewes grazed extensively over the parkland and some 40 pedigree Hereford heifers. There are also 100 Shorthorns reared and supplied to Morrisons via the retailer’s Woodheads programme.

The goal is to be as flexible as possible – and to keep it simple. “We are not dogmatic about anything – we do what works and what is right,” says Mr Nurse. “We plough in where necessary and do everything ourselves other than harvest.”

Combining and grain carting is carried out by contractors Plowrights. It means very few casual staff are directly employed during the summer months – leaving the farm staff to concentrate on getting land prepared for autumn drilling.

Machinery

Prime movers are two 400hp Fendt Challengers – one wheeled and one tracked. Machinery is rotated through a five-year replacement programme and fieldwork is on 36m tramlines. The sprayer is self-propelled – again in Fendt colours through Chandlers – and all fertiliser is liquid.

The plough is a seven furrow Kverneland. Cultivations are by a Simba Solo plus power harrow and culti-presses. “It would be easy to look at direct drilling methods but we want to farm properly and using a plough and min-till combination is what works best here,” says Mr Nurse.

Rape is established using a TWB six-leg subsoiler, going in with 100 litres of 20.0.10 during August with the aim to have it all in by September. About one third of rape varieties are conventional, with two-thirds hybrid. “One does well one year, the other the next,” says Mr Burtt.

Wheat is all grown for feed, although the mix of varieties includes some KWS Siskin and Lili. Barley is a mix of hybrid and spring varieties. Winter barley is grown for a better entry into oilseed rape and spring barley is next in line.

Storage is mainly in 1000-tonne Sukup silos and conventional blown-floor stores. But storage capacity has not kept up with demand as farms have been brought back in-hand, so some grain is sold via Gleadells at harvest.

With 70% of the estate in higher level stewardship and the rest in entry-level agreements, Brexit poses some uncertainty. But both Mr Burtt and Mr Nurse have a positive and longterm approach amid what is an ongoing programme of expansion.

Aims and Goals

The longterm goal is to keep restoring the Capability Brown landscape while farming the land in a truly sustainable way – and continually improving it. Recent years have seen well over 100,000 trees planted and five miles of shelter belts established.

The results are encouraging. Over the past decade, the estate has gone from losing a fortune to making a profit. Investment is ongoing – including the imminent opening of 12 rural retail outlets and restaurants in the engine yard, which once housed the staff.

Some 120 rented properties on the estate have been refurbished in the last five years and the old hunt stables have been converted into 20 retirement homes. Events hosted include weddings, music concerts, national Caravan Club rallies and firework displays.

Meanwhile, the shoot is going from strength to strength, turning over £1.5m and offering 140 days shooting annually – bringing clients in from across the world to stay in the 10-room shooting lodge or the castle itself, which is particularly popular with Americans.

“We are in a better place because we are committed to standing on our own two feet,” says Mr Burtt. “Many large heritage estates are run by outside agents who sometimes don’t have a clue about the aims of the heritage families that own them.

“But you can’t run a place like this from behind a desk and only visit once in a while. For me, it has to be in the heart and you have to be here all the time. The farm is a key part of what we do and it is nothing short of a privilege to run what is is one of the most beautiful estates in the country.”

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