Friday, December 6, 2019

JR Lay Farms: Monitor farm strips out arable costs

November 6, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

Strip tillage is reducing the need for high horsepower at JR Lay Farms, Shropshire. Simon Wragg reports.

A move to strip tillage three years ago is bringing savings to the arable enterprise at JR Lay Farms –  reducing the need for a high horsepower tractor. And the business is set to quantify the financial benefit after becoming a Monitor Farm.

Run as a partnership between John, Caroline and Rory Lay, the 457ha mixed farm covers much of the Loppington Estate, near Wem, North Shropshire. It is the latest unit to join the Agricultural & Horticultural Development Board’s (AHDB) arable monitor farm.

This, says Rory, will allow business decisions previously made on “instinct” to have a quantifiable financial reasoning. “A key part of the Monitor Farms scheme is looking in detail at farm costs and bench-marking these against other similar units,” he says.

Using AHDB’s Farm Bench software, physical and financial data has been entered on to the system. The aim is to produce a financial cost for each activity such as cultivations to help with decision-making. “If we don’t put it down then we’ll have nowhere to start,” says Rory.

Arable enterprise

Areas of the arable enterprise such as the financial impact of growing second wheat will benefit from scrutiny, adds John. Some has already been replaced with triticale yielding 10t/ha in 2019 – equivalent to second wheat – but, importantly, requiring less outlay on fungicides.

With a mixture of soil types and cropping, the business – which also includes 800 ewe lambs reared annually to be sold as replacements and 200 fattening cattle destined for retailer Waitrose and local outlets – also has long-term issues to challenge.

Clubroot is entrenched in some fields. This is being tackled using traditional methods such as liming and spreading out or avoiding planting brassicas in affected fields in the rotation, explains Rory.

“It’s a big issue as we need good forage crops to carry the sheep through winter. It’s restricted the area of turnips we grow alongside forage rape, kale, forage mixes, and short-term Italian ryegrass covering a total of 78ha.”

But with over 30 strains of clubroot even the use of so called ‘tolerant’ varieties has to be planned carefully. “We’ve learnt performance can be affected by soil type among other factors.”

Farm visits

Number crunching to breakdown and allocate all arable costs will help identify which are high compared to other similar farms in the AHDB Monitor Farm network. Discussions and farm visits between participants should allow producers to learn from others and adopt ‘best practice’ to lift productivity and profitability.

Cropping across the arable enterprise includes around 71ha of first wheat, 77ha of second wheat,14ha of triticale, 14ha of spring beans, 24ha of fodder beet, 40ha of forage maize, 13ha of spring barley, and 28ha of three-to-four year grass leys.

Some cost has already been driven out of cultivations. A traditional power-harrow/combination drill running behind heavy discs has been superseded by a post harvest pass with a Mzuri rake to encourage weeds and seeds to chit before establishing cereals with a Sumo DTS drill.

“The older method of establishment was fine but expensive,” explains John. A high horse-power tractor’s thirst for diesel – up to 300 litres/day – was one tangible cost which has been cut.

Soil structure under the new regime has improved, suggests Rory, with anecdotal evidence suggesting even in wet times just the top few inches of soil are ‘greasy’. This dries out quicker allowing drilling to get on apace when a window in the weather opens.

Strategic approach

“We’re also using a more strategic approach to applying organic matter such as FYM, poultry litter and bio-solids. These would have been applied to lighter soils as a general rule in the past but we now take more note of nutrient indices and crop requirement,” he adds.

This sits well as the farm is in the Roden Nitrate Vulnerable Zone. Funding has been accessed through water utility Severn Trent’s STEPS program to install a weighbridge. This is used to record inputs being applied to fields and harvested crops being taken off.

“Although it has taken some time to get the data on to Farm Bench I believe it will be useful,” says Rory. “It’s a pity it doesn’t have a bridge to allow data to be transferred across to Gate Keeper crop software which is used widely.”

The focus on financial performance is timely. An established Higher Level Stewardship scheme for environmental care – including public access – is nearing its end and an equivalent successor
remains illusive, says John. “I don’t think there’s anything that will offer us the same financial reward.”

Fortunately, the business has diversified. Solar panels, bio-mass fuelled by farm woodland thinning and a portfolio of 10 let residential properties helps spread the sources of income.

It will be early 2020 before the first ‘useful’ data from Farm Bench is available, suggests Rory. “Ultimately, the goal is to have a viable business for future generations.”

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