What can you achieve by collaboration in arable businesses?
Arable farming businesses can be frustrating things to be involved with at times. You try to write water tight budgets, that tell you how much you’re going to make and when you can expect that money into the bank account. But as you diligently enter your numbers into your spreadsheet you are fully aware that you have no idea when you are going to be able to harvest, how much produce you are going to have by the time harvest has finished, how easy it is going to be to find a market for it, or how much it is going to be worth.
When you are trying to organise staff to do all the jobs that need to happen on a farm, you have no accurate idea of when most of those jobs are going to need to happen, or even in some cases which order they are going to happen in, so that your staffing profile fluctuates from massively over-staffed to massively under-staffed on a daily basis.
Farm workers want time off over the summer like everyone else, particularly those with young families, and I am a firm believer that they should have it wherever possible, although again this is a difficult thing to organise. In an August like the one we have just experienced, however, most of the staff could’ve taken the entirety of August off and missed very little.
One thing that has alleviated the annual headache for us this year has been our collaboration with two nearby farmers, the Crows at Cherrington Manor and Tony Reilly at Tern Farm. For the first time this year, we have merged the labour and machinery across all of our arable acreages with the aim of reducing our cost of production and improving the quality of our farming operations.
Truly calculating the cost benefit of operating in this way is difficult, as is determining the best machinery strategy when three farms, which typically own one of everything, merge their operations. However, putting an exact figure on this quantitative improvement is a challenge I have set myself in my next twelve months as a Monitor Farmer and I am confident that we will be able to achieve this by working with the Joint Venture Farming Group and by using an innovative piece of software they have developed to solve exactly this issue.
My instinct is that this first collaborative harvest, which still has just under 200 acres of potatoes to gather in before it can call itself truly complete, has been a huge success. The days when it is chucking it down and it doesn’t seem like anything can be achieved have been few; with three farms there is normally something that can be done somewhere, and with the farming area spread over 15 miles it is surprising how often one area has missed a deluge when another has been hit.
On the other side of the coin, on the busiest days it is astonishing how much work can be achieved when you have immediate access to experienced staff that know the farms and understand their jobs and the machinery well. On Friday 11 September, on one of the only sunny days we’d had in north Shropshire since June, and the last one that has included no rain since then, the other two farms had both finished combining so we had twelve staff working on the combinable crops enterprise and managed to complete the following:
– Combined 200 acres with three combines and five tractor drivers, including 60 acres of some very flat spring oats (145mm of rain through August had proved too much for what was a good crop)
– Dried 150t of feed wheat through our 27t batch drier
– Rolled 90 acres of OSR
– Ran a Sumo Trio over 70 acres of ground before drilling
– Drilled 70 acres of OSR ground
– Sprayed a pre-em herbicide over 90 acres of OSR
As a farm in our own right, this volume of work would have taken three or four days to get through meaning that certain tasks, which were all highly time sensitive, would have slipped down the priority list and been completed late. Because we were working with our neighbours, and had therefore compromised on an element of control throughout the season, we were able to achieve all of these things concurrently and still make it down to the pub before closing time.
As a final note, I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone at Howle, Tern and Cherrington that has worked with us this harvest, and particular Tony Reilly who is a natural problem-solver, and instils everyone around him with positivity. We are not quite there yet, but it has, so far, been a conflict free harvest which has been highly productive and enormously enjoyable. We could not do it if every single member of the staff team was not truly excellent at their job.
If you are not already collaborating with your neighbour then you should be! You will never achieve on your own what you could be achieving together.
We will be exploring the themes of collaboration and joint venture farming throughout my second year as a Monitor Farmer, starting with our next meeting at Howle Manor on 28 October.