Is older machinery the way forward?

We are now a month into the new year and winter wheat and OSR are currently looking good on all of the Joint Venture farms. Wheat was all drilled in six days at the beginning of October into good seed beds. Although we then suffered from a dry period for a fortnight, rain eventually came just in time and any dry, thin area soon caught up. Robust pre-emergence sprays and follow up grass weed sprays have been applied with varied results. Most oilseed rape was drilled in the first or second week of September. This was because it was following spring barley that was late drilled and late harvested. Initially I was worried about drilling so late and I think that if we had had an average or wet autumn, then some would not have survived. As it was it stayed warm and dry and allowed the crop to get away.

Looking back at the 2016 harvest, I can’t help feeling that we were better off than some. OSR yielded slightly below average at 3.8t/ha as did the spring beans spring beans at 4t/ha. Neither exciting but from stories I have heard, they could have been a lot worse. The first bit of spring linseed I have ever grown was not the nightmare some had warned me it would be. Yields were not great, but once it was fit it cut very easily and will margin around the same as the spring beans. I will grow a little more this year and see if I can get more out of it now that I have learnt a little.

The big surprise was the winter wheat. Yields were just below 10t/ha, above our five year average and only just below my budget yield. The wet weather in June did not seem to cause the level of disease we were worried about and the crop was even and bold.

Over the last three years, I have managed to achieve yields in wheat well above the farm’s average. I know that the weather has a huge impact on this but I can’t help feeling that we are getting other aspects of growing the crop right. We don’t direct drill and only have some very small cover crop trials. We cultivate (not too deep – about 6 inches) and drill with a non disc drill, and compaction mapping has shown that we don’t have a compaction problem (apart from on headlands). Chicken litter and sewage sludge are used in the rotation and organic matter ranges from 2% to 7% and our soils have never been in such good condition. This was proved with our highest average wheat yields ever in 2014, just two years after we “damaged” our soils in the wet 2012 and 2013. Nitrogen is applied variably and the historically better zones of fields are pushed to get the average yield up, and I personally can’t see a cover crop/direct drilling system performing this well on our heavier, wet clays.

We had our six-monthly board meeting recently and the managers of all departments (the farm, removals, and storage) are invited into the morning session to talk about performance in their area. I received a grilling on why I have opted to replace a few machines this year at some considerable cost, but I think my arguments held up. Machinery prices continue to rise at an astronomical rate and certainly not in line with crop prices and I do believe that things will have to change in the future. The recent Monitor Farm conference showed that one farmer was operating older machinery and not suffering the breakdowns that would usually be associated with that system. However, I am not that brave yet!

As farmers we all like to talk about what machinery we have bought, what prices we have paid for fertiliser and what our fungicide strategy is for saving a few quid here and there, but by far the biggest impact on the bottom line is yield and price. Modern farming technology is helping us drive yields up on the farms we are involved with and better selling strategy and understanding the markets are making the biggest difference. AHDB Benchmarking Meetings always seem to show that variable costs within the group are all very close no matter how different the fertiliser or spray programmes are. The biggest differences are in fixed costs, overheads yield and selling price.

Maybe running older machinery is the way forward!

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Robert Fox is a farm manager based just outside Leamington Spa. The business is highly diversified, with a large enterprise around general storage and document storage, as well as machinery and labour sharing with another arable farm. Robert farms 400ha of owned and rented land, with a rotation of winter wheat, winter barley, winter oilseed rape, spring beans and spring barley. His challenges in the coming years include black-grass control, improving soil quality and introducing controlled traffic farming.

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