Best in Field 2023. A H Oliver & Son, Winter Beans


Will Oliver of A H Oliver & Son has been credited with having the lowest Variable Cost of Production for Winter Beans at £62.40/t for Harvest 2023. We visited Will just outside Nuneaton to learn more about this awesome Cost of Production and understand how the farm operates.  

Will, you must be getting used to winning awards now. Arable Farmer of the Year, Arable & Grasslands Award, IAgrM Enviromental... Do you have room for one more?  

Well, you never say no to an award! It’s always nice to have hard work recognised.  

Recognising hard work is exactly why we’re here. Why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself and the farm?  

We farm on the Leicestershire / Warwickshire border, on the site of the Battle of Bosworth. We’re a diversified family farming business, of which I’m the fourth generation.  

The soil is high Mag clay, which can be challenging at times. But we always do what we can to keep improving soil health and we’re moving in the right direction with that. 

We’re growing Winter Wheat, Winter Beans and Grain Maize. We’ve also got a poultry enterprise as well as glamping, plus residential and commercial lets.  

The glamping pods are the newest edition which became a part of our business in 2020. We now have six safari tents, and that’s called the Dandelion Hideaway.   

You’ve won Best in Field for Winter Beans 2023. Why did you choose to include Winter Beans in your rotation to begin with?  

Historically our rotation was quite intensive. It was Wheat / Rape / Wheat / Rape, which a lot of growers had, due to it being the most profitable rotation. But with the demise of Oilseed Rape in the region, we were looking for different break crops.  

We had grown Beans in the past as part of ELS as a Spring crop. So following the loss of Oilseed Rape, Winter Beans became a really attractive option. They leave the soil in good condition, they’re low input, and we’re having quite a bit of success. They’re less variable than Spring Beans and they’re working well for us.  

In terms of profitability, which is what we’re all striving to achieve, Beans aren’t great. Not if you look at pound signs. But if you look at what they bring to the rotation and other aspects... We can get Wheat in early and get it in well, we haven’t got to do many cultivations. We’re direct drilling straight after Beans and, again, they leave the soil in really good condition. 

So they bring a lot to the rotation. They’re a bit of a Cinderella crop, but they make the Wheat entry really good and that’s worth a lot to us.  

You mention direct drilling, do you have any particular machinery that’s helping with the Beans? 

We have a Horsch Sprinter which is 12 metres and we put a Bourgault tine on, which is quite low disturbance. We plant in 30cm rows which is quite wide.  

Being sceptical that the weather is going to change, we often go in mid-October, perhaps a little bit earlier than we should. The weather tends to turn on us and we’ve got a lot of pressures later on, like in late October we’re growing grain Maize, so we try to get the Beans in early, sometimes before our Wheat and get the crop established.  

We’re direct drilling Beans, and we’re direct drilling the Wheat after Beans which all works quite well. It’s also quite attractive for future options coming with SFI, and we’re looking at companion cropping going forwards.  

winter bean field

So it all ties into that bigger picture. Focusing on your Winter Beans – What markets are you catering to?  

Previously we’ve grown for seed. But this harvest they’ve gone for feed. We aim to grow for human consumption if possible.  

But the seed market affects us. We wanted to be drilling before we even had the seed on farm last year, so that resulted in us growing for feed rather than seed.  

We tend to buy in a few tonnes of new seed and the rest is home saved. We home save the new seed year on year, and that works quite well. Looking at the samples of what we’re planting, often what you grow is better quality than what you buy in. Because you’ve grown it, you know where it comes from, you understand the disease pressure in each field and you can pick the best bits for your seed.  

You’ve won Best in Field with a Variable Cost of Production of £62.40/t. Way below the Market Median of £83.84/t. What would you say are the main factors or decisions that help keep your costs down? 

We’re planting in quite wide rows which lets plenty of sunlight into the crop, producing a healthy plant which helps reduce fungicide spend.  

In terms of herbicide, we tend to just use Kerb-Flo 500 at pre-em and maybe something later on if needed. We haven’t used any glyphosate.  

All these things help keep the costs down. We’ve also dabbled with Trace Elements in a few trials to improve plant health.  

I always think of a COVID patient. If somebody is healthy and fit, COVID might not affect them, but if they’re tired or unwell it could affect them more. And that’s the same for plants. If you have a healthy plant you don’t need as much fungicide, which keeps costs down.  

This year was actually quite a high-pressure year for Chocolate Spot, so our fungicide spend was higher than I’d have wanted, but it paid off. You have to treat each year differently.  

Data graph describing herbicide application costs vs wider markets which is useful for farm benchmarking

Continuing with inputs then; your Winter Bean yield has increased 6% on last year, but your fungicide spend has been increasing also. You didn’t use any fungicide at all in 2021. Is this increase in reaction to disease pressure, like the Chocolate Spot you mentioned? 

This year was tough on Chocolate Spot. I made the decision to invest in a fungicide because we felt it was going to hit the crop hard. 

I used a product called Levee which is a Syngenta product, essentially an alternative form of Elatus Era, and it’s quite an expensive input. We’ve lost Chlorothalonil as a tool, and we’re losing tools all the time, which often means the ones available to us tend to cost more. That’s just the way it is. 

Also, going forwards, legislation might change how Bean crops are labelled. It might not be classed as a niche crop because the area has grown so high across the country. That would change legislation dramatically and mean we don’t have so many chemicals available as an option.  

But it’s worth saying the weather is the number one thing that affects our yield and operation. Everything we do in between helps and makes a difference, but weather will always be the number one driver.  

And do you manage your own agronomy on farm? 

Yep, all agronomy is done in-house by myself. I get various prices from different people, which keeps everyone on their toes and means I can get the best prices, which helps with these margins as well.  

Growing over 100ha of Winter Beans, you’ve stuck with one variety – Vespa. And have stuck with it for several seasons now. What is it about Vespa that appeals to you? 

It’s a high yielding Winter Bean variety. Beans aren’t like Wheat where you have many varieties to choose from. I chose it for storage reasons, and, as we touched upon, for home saved seed. 

I find Vespa simple, and I don’t like to chop and change varieties too often. I like to learn about them, learn their traits and how they work on your farm.  

Originally, I grew Vespa for seed and we’ve gone from there. It seems to perform. It works for us and for our system. It’s a case of if it’s not broke then don’t fix it.  

Data graph showing varietal data for winter bean crop costs of production and market medians

What would you say are some of the biggest challenges for growing a successful Winter Bean crop? Any top tips? 

The biggest challenge for us is establishment and getting that right. There’s the old saying ‘well sown is half grown’ and it’s true. 

We had it few years ago where we didn’t get it in, so we were mucking it in and having to plough it in – We ended up compromising how we would normally want to go about it. And that was because of the weather.  

Whereas I’d rather just go a little bit earlier. Get it in while conditions are good and that seems to be working well. The rest is just looking after the plant and getting it through the season. It’s a fairly hardy crop so it can cope with frost fairly well.  

Sat here now, we’ve had a lot of rain but the Beans are looking pretty good out there in the field.  

Looking forwards, what goals do you have for A H Oliver & Son? Any new developments or plans for the future?  

We want to carry on producing food – that’s really important to us. But at the same time understanding that we need to make money. So, embracing SFI and using it to work alongside food production.  

Things like no insecticide on Maize, Beans and Wheat where it’s sensible to do so. Companion cropping and cover cropping where possible.  

Generally embracing change and continuing to move forward because otherwise you might get left behind.  

And do you have any thoughts on the balance between food production and SFI? 

Yes. If you have a bad year when you need an insecticide, it’s quite hard as a farmer to say ‘I can’t do that I’m in SFI.’ Food production is paramount, it's important to us and I hope that common sense prevails. If there’s a freak situation then food production must be top of the agenda.  

For example with Wheat, we can grow varieties which are resistant to Orange Blossom Midge. But if Yellow Blossom Midge suddenly becomes an issue this could have huge impacts on a Wheat yield in a given year. And we’ve got to manage that accordingly. 

We can do other things to mitigate those risks. Breeding is improving all the time, we’re getting resistant varieties, we’re able to delay drilling.... At the moment we haven’t used an insecticide in six years so to me it’s a no brainer to take that payment (IPM 04.)  

But I am aware of the risks involved in all of that. And we’ve got to be careful as an industry not to bite our nose off to spite our face. 

We’d like to congratulate Will once again for his impressive Winter Bean production and winning YAGRO’s Best in Field 2023. 

Luke Sayer joined our Marketing Team in March 2023. With a background in the Arable Trials sector and a First Degree in English, Luke is responsible for writing our articles and handling press relations. His journey in agriculture began in 2008, when he worked his first harvest. Over the next 15 years, Luke worked a dozen harvest seasons - becoming a full-time Arable Trials farmer from 2019 to 2023. He has farmed every type of cereal plus pulses and break crops, but specifically focused on developing better beta-glucan levels in Oat varieties. In his YAGRO articles, Luke emphasises the crucial role that data and technology play in modern agriculture. He believes that listening and responding to farm data is the surest way to increase sustainability and efficiency in this ever-evolving industry. You can contact Luke on