Time as Monitor Farm has been inspirational, says Suffolk farmer

HGCA Monitor Farm Open Day at Lodge Farm in Westhorpe: Farmer Brian Barker addressing delegates

HGCA Monitor Farm Open Day at Lodge Farm in Westhorpe: Farmer Brian Barker addressing delegates - Credit: Archant

Being part of a programme aimed at helping farmers to embrace real-life innovation and best practice has been “inspirational”, a Suffolk farmer said as he nears the end of his three-year term as a ‘host’.

Brian Barker, of Westhorpe, near Stowmarket, was part of levy payers’ group AHDB’s Monitor Farm project, which has been rolled out across the country.

The aim is to encourage open-minded farmers looking to further their business to share knowledge with local peers.

The programme aims to help them to boost technical performance, profit and long-term sustainability by embracing new ideas.

“Being a Monitor Farmer has been really good for my business – it’s inspired me to analyse key financial and agronomic issues and it has brought together a great group of local farmers that will continue to share problems and solutions even after the project here has ended. I can’t imagine a better way of helping arable farms to progress,” said Brian.

There is still time to apply to host the next Monitor Farm in Essex/south Suffolk.

AHDB is looking for a new group of Monitor Farm hosts to take the programme forward, as the first projects draw to an end next summer.

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The new Monitor Farms will be appointed in spring 2017 and will hold meetings for three years from summer 2017 to 2020.

The deadline for applying is December 31, 2016.

Brian shared his experiences recently at an AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds Monitor Farm network event near Milton Keynes.

The 24-hour conference featured presentations from Monitor Farm hosts and technical experts which sparked discussions and debate on topics ranging from yield and soil health to business skills and weed management.

Three of the Monitor Farm hosts shared their experiences on reducing fixed costs, improving yields, weed management and soil health.

Brian explained how he and his Monitor Farm group had recently established the ‘Stowmarket Yield Club’ with other local growers with the aim to benchmark their crops against each other.

“Taking part in the Yield Enhancement Network (YEN) competition showed me that I needed to look further at all of my crops, and I asked myself how I could get better,” he said.

“I currently get just 62% of my theoretical yield potential. This difference in yield, a potential 6.2t/ha could have got me an extra £744/ha.

“A variety of things could have caused this loss in yield: not enough roots, or perhaps a lack of sunshine or rain. There must have been a missing link somewhere. I’d also like to work out where I could have saved money on inputs.

“I’m keen to put numbers to things we haven’t counted so far. For example, counting, crop establishment, shoot numbers, tiller numbers throughout the year from which we can get more information to use to calculate our yield potential and benchmark against.

“I found this year that with my disc drill I budgeted for 25% field loss and actually lost 31% for the wheat planted in a no-till situation, so my potential is already lower than I hoped so I need adjust my agronomy accordingly.

“We need to farm to potential, not to hope.”

With farms represented from Cornwall up to the Black Isle, the delegates’ experience of black-grass varied greatly, although the threat of the weed remains large for all farmers.

Huntingdon Monitor Farm host Russell McKenzie who farms in Cambridgeshire, said: “Black-grass is the biggest challenge we have, in terms of profitability. It’s ripping yield out of the crop in the worst situations and it seemed that some tillage techniques used were making the situation worse.

“At my farm in Cambridgeshire we have had to adopt a whole farm approach. We can’t spend our way out of trouble, and it seemed to us that cultivations were making the situation worse.

“My primary aim is to reduce my herbicide costs. I’ll widen rotations and shift away from cultivations, but what I do will be pragmatic, and I know I’ll need flexibility in my systems.”

Russell was also an AHDB-sponsored Nuffield scholar and told the group how data on low disturbance, disc-based drills he’d seen in the US and Australia led to 92% less weed germination.

Another host farmer, Richard Reed of Berwick-upon-Tweed explained how he and his team specialise in running older machinery, making the most out of machines that other farmers might pass by. Richard’s entire farm equipment cost just over £600,000, but the equivalent new machinery would have cost more than £1m.

Susannah Bolton, AHDB Director of Knowledge Exchange, said: “This event is a real highlight of the year. Reflecting on the political events of the year, it’s clear that the negotiations ahead of us may take a long time. The important thing is how UK agriculture remains competitive, and in order to remain competitive, we need to think about our own costs of production. But most of all, we need to be resilient.

“The Monitor Farm environment is a fantastic place to talk about risks and new opportunities. Monitor Farms are an important asset to us as AHDB and the wider industry, placing research outputs within a context of farm businesses. It puts new innovation into context. It’s about placing the farmer at the centre of everything we do.”

Paul Temple, AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds chair, praised the high degree of honesty at the event.

“Monitor Farms are a great way of learning practical information at a local level, and we’ve experienced this here at the conference,” he said.

To find a Monitor Farm near you, or to apply to become a new Monitor Farm host, visit cereals.ahdb.org.uk/monitorfarms, or contact Teresa Meadows on 07387 015465 or at teresa.meadows@ahdb.org.uk.