Thursday, December 5, 2019

Squab Hall Farm: United we thrive

August 1, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

Working together is the way forward for arable farmers, believes Warwickshire grower Rob Fox. Simon Wragg reports.

Greater collaboration between arable farmers is helping reduce the risk of growing crops in the future – as highlighted by this season’s failure of some oilseed rape, says Warwickshire grower and AHDB Strategic Farm manager Rob Fox.

In charge of T I Evans’ 400ha farming operation at Squab Hall near Leamington Spa, Mr Fox has overseen a joint venture with two other local growers to pool machinery and share labour over an additional 365ha to reduce costs.

“Collaboration is where I see (the industry’s) future,” he says. The joint venture with Brightman Farms of Gaydon and C H Warhurst & Sons of Chesterton is now in its fourth year and looking for an additional partner to increase arable operations to around 1000ha.

“You have to believe in and be passionate about the joint venture first and foremost,” he explains. “At harvest you don’t have to be too precious if your field isn’t being cut on a particular day so long as there’s activity within the whole acreage.”

Joining forces

The arable area is managed as one unit with each farm supplying separate ‘front-line’ machinery (for which a balancing charge is paid quarterly where needed) and T I Evans supplying the labour.

Each member is responsible for marketing their own crops and there’s no profit share at the end. Machinery and labour use is levied according to the demands of each farm and a monthly management fee paid for Mr Fox’s time.

“An attribute is that all the members communicate well and bounce ideas off each other. It’s fortunate that we have similar cultivations across some of the county’s heaviest (clay) soils – mostly Grade 3s. We cultivate as little as we have to and only as much as we need to. We get on early and get off quickly.”

A step forward for members came with an investment in 2017 which saw a John Deere 8370 RT tracked unit replaced a high-horsepower wheeled tractor.

Better suited to heavy draft work on members’ undulating and banked ground, GPS technology has reduced the machine’s ‘footprint’ on headlands by drilling every-other run in turn to reduce the issue of smearing.

“All the operations are geared to working widths in multiples of six meters and we use Controlled Traffic Lanes across the cropped area to minimise compaction.

GPS has been significant in reducing operator fatigue allowing the driver to concentrate on what’s going on behind the tractor rather than following a wheel marker in front of it,” he says, emphatically.


By co-ordinating members’ investment in machinery, costs have been cut by an estimated 15% to date, suggests Mr Fox. This has not been a physical saving but has ‘negated’ the increase in machinery purchase costs over recent years.

Across the worked acreage precision farming and variable rate technologies are used widely. The aim is not to unify production across each field but to maximise production for each area within each field, suggests Mr Fox.

Spring cropping has come to the fore. Post harvest soils are cultivated to help in the battle against black-grass and moved little before drilling where-ever possible to conserve moisture. “With these heavier soils I still believe you need to move the top 6in to get a good seedbed,” he adds.

Second wheats have been dropped in favour of spring barley, linseed or beans. In 2018 flea beetle damage saw some winter oilseed rape crops taken out and replaced with spring crops to mitigate further losses. “Any drilled after the August Bank Holiday just didn‘t have sufficient vigour to get off to a good start.”

Flexible strategy

Different strategies for the crop are being considered at Squab Hall. These include defoliation in the winter – possibly using a flail mower – or use of companion crops or foliar sprays such as garlic to deter pests.

“It’s important that as arable farmers we can try different strategies on our own farms and share that experience with others.”

That philosophy has seen the former AHDB Monitor Farm go on to become a Strategic Farm with greater emphasis on evaluation of techniques (further information is available on AHDB’s webpages).

For now, the focus is on harvest 2019, says Mr Fox. “What oilseed we have left is looking okay if a little patchy.

“Wheat crops have benefited from the heavier soils retaining moisture and while ear numbers are down it benefited the crop at grain fill. And spring beans – not that we have any here at Squab – look to be a better crop than 2018.”

With half of all crops on the farm’s own arable ground sold forward to mitigate risk, there’s still much work to be done to secure a profitable conclusion to the 2019 harvest.

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