First blog from Colchester

4 June 2014

I come from a farming family, which moved here in 1938.  I’m the fourth generation in this part of Essex, and the family bought this farm in 1952.

In 2001 a neighbouring farmer issued a tender to contract farm his land, and we were successful.  Truthfully I think he knew that Dad had three sons, and he decided to give us the opportunity to expand.  Since then we’ve been lucky with contract work, so now the business comprises 160 acres owned – in a single block, a 60 place equestrian centre, and we contract farm for seven landowners within a 20 mile radius.

That means we handle around 3,700 acres of combinable crops in all, plus 45 acres of sugar beet – with no livestock now except the horses. We tend to evaluate opportunities as they arise – we’re well known now in the area as contract farmers, and I can assure you that we have missed out on as many opportunities as we have been successful with.

Partners in the business are me and my parents, with two full-time staff on the arable side of the business and one on the equestrian. We use casuals at harvest – usually that’s around four extra people. I’m a trained agronomist, and do this for all the farms we manage bar one, taking regular advice from different people, but making the decisions myself.

We’re currently growing wheat, OSR, winter and spring barley, peas, beans and sugar beet. Last year the weather had a major impact, like it did on all farms, which took a toll of our crops. For example, we only harvested a third of our OSR crop.  Without the threat from black-grass we would have started drilling wheat earlier in September, before the weather broke around 23 September.  After 3 inches in a week establishment on heavy clays was very tricky.

Tom In A Field Of Wheat

We’ve since taken steps to manage market risk.  All of our OSR is on minimum price contract, with three different buyers. All the barley is on contract, either fixed price or a premium over wheat futures, with a small part in a pool.  Peas and beans are all on contract. So the main product we have that is open market is wheat, and we have only forward around 20 per cent of the 2014 crop at present. So we have a mixed market strategy, with about half our production on contract.

In the ground currently we have two varieties of OSR, Eraton and Palmedor, which you won’t find on the AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds RL because they’re specialist HEAR varieties. The commercial wheat is all Group 4’s – Santiago, JB Diego, Kielder for feed, with Crusoe, Grafton and Evolution for seed.

We go for Group 4 varieties because we’ve struggled for protein, so we simply want a big heap. We can’t make growing milling wheat stack up currently, with the increased nitrogen that’s required and the yield differential. The winter barley is SY Venture and the spring barley is Cheerio, for Carlsberg. Spring beans are Fuego, peas are Daytona and Prophet.

We have 65 per cent chalky boulder clay, the rest being sandy loam, sand and clay, with a little alluvial soil as well, so quite a mixture.

One of the things that have taxed us over the past five years is coping with changes in the weather. Although it’s generally good cereals soil, we tend to run low on moisture at some stage in the season, and the land doesn’t seem as resilient as it has been in the past.  My Nuffield experience suggests this is probably down to falling organic levels. I’ve just hired in a direct drill, for testing this autumn – we’ll see how things go.

I hope many growers will come to our Monitor Farm opening event on 26 June.  It promises to be an interesting day – just email Tim Isaac  to let him know you’ll be attending.



Tom Bradshaw is a partner in his family farm and grows 1,485ha of combinable crops – malting barley, milling wheat, peas and beans - to the west of Colchester in Essex. Apart from a small area of owned land, the majority is farmed under contracting arrangements and includes a wide range of soil types. He has been involved in Recommended Lists trials, and appeared on the BBC Harvest programme in 2013. Tom was recently elected to the NFU combinable crops board.