Thursday, November 15, 2018

Northamptonshire business eyes bigger contract farming future

June 29, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

Courteenhall Farms is expanding its contract farming operation in Northamptonshire. Simon Wragg reports.

An imported chaff handling system to be fitted to a Lexion 780 combine in time for this year’s harvest is the latest blackgrass control measure to be implemented by Northamptonshire-based Courteenhall Farms – the 850ha arable operation of the Wake family.

The Australian manufactured EMAR Chaff Deck reduces the spread of weed seeds by depositing material into the combine wheelings rather than fanning it out below the straw walkers, explains farm manager Charlie Reynolds.

“Should the industry get glyphosate stewardship, it will reduce significantly the area to be sprayed for weed control,” he says. The new system is just the latest investment as the business expands its contract farming operation.

This advance adds to a catalogue of blackgrass control measures applied throughout the cropping calendar. “All our arable decisions are influenced by the desire to reduce populations of this particular weed,” he explains.

Harvesting equipment is cleaned down with an air line before leaving fields with known blackgrass populations to reduce the risk of spreading seed unwittingly.

Post-harvest strategy

Agronomic controls post-harvest will see cover crops drilled at a lower seed rate of 16kg/ha in a bid to leave an open canopy to encourage the weed to germinate. “If too dense it’s not uncommon to get a flush after drilling crops in the following spring,” he warns.

Winter cereals and oilseeds are drilled relatively late from mid October using a trailed Horsch Sprinter. Fitted with low disturbance drill tines, the unit is able to cover 90ha/day in good conditions. This allows time for blackgrass to germinate post harvest before being knocked back with herbicides.

But this comes at a cost. Mr Reynolds believes some chemicals are losing their efficacy leading to herbicide costs more than doubling to over £100/ha, he explains.

To get better coverage of pre-emergence herbicide, the farm’s Horsch PT330 sprayer’s 36m boom – the working width of all tramlines used within the business’ Controlled Traffic Farming (CTF) system aimed at reducing soil compaction by using designated wheelings year-on-year – features banks of four spray nozzles offering a range of jet profiles.

“By reducing forward speed and water pressure we can maintain a droplet size that not only achieves better coverage but allows spraying to continue in more challenging conditions.”

Rotation

Spring crops within the rotation (winter wheat is followed by spring barley or beans, oilseed rape, winter wheat, spring beans and then back into winter wheat) have seen seed rates increased significantly to shade out blackgrass.

“We target 400 seeds/m sq instead of 300 for cereals and 70 seeds/m sq instead of 25 for oilseed rape. Varieties planted are governed by our end markets but also take into account early growth characteristics to compete effectively against weeds.”

As blackgrass favours cold wet soils, Courteenhall Farms is undertaking a programme of updating field drains and ditches to improve rain water outflow across its heavier land. “It’s not a cheap operation at up to £2500/ha but necessary.”

Continued targeted applications of organic matters including green waste compost, sewage cake and – in the future – spent liquid from anaerobic digester sites also assists in improving the structure of vsoil across the farmed area.

Elsewhere, 40-80ha of rotational grass ley may be introduced to the cropped area to enable blackgrass to be eaten off by sheep and cattle when stocked tightly. To keep the sward tight and avoid weeds going to seed, a cut of hay or haylage may be taken as part of an agreement with prospective tenants, it’s suggested.

The cache of controls is extended to the business’ contract farming operation which covers 460ha across a 25-mile radius from the home farm buildings. It includes 320ha at Geddington which belongs to Mr Reynolds’ family.

Future opportunities

“With our current machinery there’s potential to increase the contract farming by around 300ha. But is has to be a good fit with the in-hand operation. All of it is run on CTF principles which are relatively simple to set up. As there needs to be a return for both parties we would prefer longer-term agreements of five or 10 years.”

But the opportunities and benefits Courteenhall Farms can offer will stand out under the proposed post-Brexit support for farming, he believes. “Payments may be geared to improving soil health. Already with CTF we’re seeing improved (water) percolation and more worm activity to two spade depths.”

The ability for new contract farming partners to tag on to the business’ RTK base station to assist with GPS guidance of machinery will help reduce inputs, improve crop mapping and gross margin analysis, he suggests.

The business’ full-time team of three operators is joined by two harvest hands in summer months. A chaser bin is used to get harvested crops off the fields to avoid trailers causing compaction and back to Courteenhall’s central 3500t store while most malting barley and milling wheat goes direct to 1800t of storage space at Camgrain.

Mr Reynolds is reluctant to speculate on harvest yields after a very wet and late spring drilling period. “Time will tell; spring crops advanced through growth stages at a phenomenal speed but the amount of sunlight and moisture at ear-fill will still have been the determining factor on yield.”

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