Best in Field 2023 D F Middleditch & Son Winter Oats


Harry Middleditch at D F Middleditch & Son has been credited with the lowest Variable Cost of Production for Winter Oats seen across the YAGRO platform for Harvest 2023 – just £48.50/t. We visited harry for this fascinating discussion on the techniques behind his outstanding crop of Mascani, and his thoughts on the wider industry: 

Why don’t you begin by introducing yourself and the farm?  

I’m Harry Middleditch, 4th generation farmer here on the Essex/Suffolk border. I farm in conjunction with my father. I’d say we’re a ‘new generation mixed farm’ both arable and poultry. 274ha of cereal cropping, alongside a 40’000 free range broiler site.  

We’re on Hanslope heavy clay soil which doesn’t vary too much. We don’t have a fully fixed rotation, rather favouring to work openly on a field-by-field basis and adjusting with seasons and weed burdens. Traditionally, we grow First Wheat, Winter Oats, Winter Beans plus Winter & Spring Barley. This season will be the first time in 5 years that we’re growing Second Wheat.  

Our agronomy has always been handled by Agrovista.  

You’ve won Best in Field 2023 for Winter Oats. It’s your third year in a row growing them. You must be pleased with what they’re bringing to your rotation?  

Absolutely! We’re really happy with the Oats. We introduced them the year we stopped growing Oilseed Rape.  

We cut out Oilseed Rape not because of Flea Beetle pressure, or pigeons or slugs, but purely because it was too high risk. And we felt it negatively affected our weed pressure, particularly Black Grass control.   

So, we were looking for other options. Everyone knows Oats aren’t a ‘true’ break crop – but they’re a Take-all break crop. And they’re working well in our rotation.  

You’ve won the award with a variable COP/t of £48.50, which is below Market Median (£50.76.) Can you throw your hat on some of the reasons you’ve been able to keep your costs low? 

I’m a massive believer in return on investment. Everything we spend must bring a return – that’s integral in everything we do.   

It’s about assessing where we are in comparison to previous years and searching for ways to optimise costs. That’s where we’ve used YAGRO, through benchmarking and sparking conversations in Virtual Groups.  

It’s not always about cutting costs. It’s about optimising costs. We benchmark to see what other people are spending on crops and products, and seeing what returns they’re getting.  

So, our mindset is always one of following a learning curve. Everything from seed rates to fertiliser applications form all the numerous components we bring together to try to keep our costs down.  

That’s a valuable phrase: ‘It’s not about cutting costs, it’s about optimising costs.’ Would you say your approach is refined year-on-year?  

Yes. You’ve seen we spent more on PGR this year - because it returns. Keeping crops standing increases yield, straw distribution, and generally makes everyone’s life easier.  

And we’ll get onto some of the individual spends in a moment. On the topic of lessons learned - Last year your variable COP/t was above market median, but this year you’ve won Best in Field. What are the main differences between 2022 and 2023 for you?  

Last year was obviously full of huge input prices, particularly fertiliser. The main learning curve was getting the best from our poultry manure. We needed to develop the confidence to incorporate our broiler unit within our operation and learn how to get the most benefit from it.  

The broiler unit was only built in 2019, with the first birds arriving in November that year. We’re lucky to have it on site. It was purely a business decision, and it was new to us. We were looking for something to ‘tie the circle’; namely bringing in an organic fertiliser to help the arable operation and bridge the gap in some of our costs. 

We were much more proficient during the 2023 season at incorporating our organics and that helped our costs massively.  

Comparing your 2022 and 2023 variable costs – one of your main savings has been fertiliser (16% less /ha.) You’ve got access to your broiler unit as mentioned. Are there other factors keeping your fertiliser costs down? Do you use variable rates? 

Yes, all variable rates with Nitrogen and have done so for 5 years now. We see massive benefits from it. Which means it provides returns.  

Last year was a huge year for savings with variable rates. We use software to see where crops need N and where they don’t. We identify where we can cut back and where it’s not sensible to do so. It all goes back to optimising costs and not spending on areas that aren’t going to return.  

Another saving to discuss is seeds. Compared to last year, you’ve saved about 24% of your seed costs /ha. But your kg applied at drilling is only 5% less. Where are these savings coming from?  

Mostly by home saving. But also, which made a big difference, we decided to take all our seed dressings off. The only seed dressing we used was Manganese, as opposed to spraying it on, so it gets to the seed rather than hitting the leaf. 

So, no seed dressing at all on our Oats. Same as our Spring Barley last year. It’s not a huge cost saving, but they all count, and they all add up. 

I also wanted to mention the absence of any Insecticide or Fungicide on your Winter Oats. What’s the thinking behind that? 

I’m a big believer in wider row spacings. I think it gets the air to the bottom of the plants. Oats are susceptible to mildew but you can avoid creating a microclimate by having wide spacings and letting sunlight get right down into the crop. We drill at about 20cm and use conventional seed rates.  

We’re a small enough outfit that we can react quickly if we need to. But it always goes back to the same point of return on investment. When monitoring the crop, we simply didn’t feel like the Oats needed it or that we would benefit for the extra expenditure.  

That explains the no Fungicide. And insecticide can often be in reaction to the year’s pressure – or are you moving to claim the IPM04 payment for no Insecticide?  

Not at all. With insecticide we’ve simply been reacting to the pressures of the season, and not spending where we don’t have to. We haven’t deliberately moved for the IPM04 payment – but if it’s on offer and we qualify, then it’s ‘quids in.’ We’ll be looking at IPM4 more for the Spring Oats. 

I read an article which featured you a few years ago. You cited cultivations and a good seedbed as one of your highest priorities. Is this still the case? 

Absolutely. More so than ever, especially with Spring cropping. If you can get crops drilled and away in good conditions, then you’re halfway there. 

We’re not calendar farmers. If there’s a window, then we go for it. From the past I’ve learned that good conditions after drilling are just as important as good conditions beforehand.  

And have you got a favourite bit of kit for your cultivations? 

We’ve revamped the whole business over the last 18 months. We’ve cut back on labour and machinery a lot for cost reasons. Many of our prime movers and high-ticket machines have actually gone now. We are now part of an agreement with a local farmer who comes to help on a pass-by-pass basis.  

Certain things are still done inhouse, including granular fertiliser spreading, low disturbance subsoiling, rolling... which offers flexibility. But these changes have slashed our fixed costs massively, which is where we felt the business was most exposed.  

We had to analyse the business and where we felt it was going. It seems like Autumn cultivations and cover crops will be featuring before Spring cropping more and drilling straight in without moving any soil, most likely with a Horsch Sprinter.  

But if you ask what my favourite machine is, I’d say the muck spreader. We have a Richard Weston and it’s transformed how we utilise organic manures with much more accurate spreading.  

When it comes to the relationship between yield and Cost of Production, what are you focused on most? Do you see Oats as a low-in low-out crop? 

Margin is key. Margin is where we make money. We could yield the most high-yielding crop possible, but if the margin isn’t there then you’re on a road to nowhere. Margin is key because we’re in business after all.  

The pressures from above in the industry mean that we really have to be on top of costs. Not slashing costs, but optimising costs, and again it all comes down to return on investment. Don’t spend where you won’t see a return.  

So, I’d say margin is key, but of course you must have yield in your eyeline.  

What end markets are you catering to with your Winter Oats? 

2023 all went for milling. That’s specifically why we grew Mascani for the last three years.  

Although, we didn’t actually drill them in the traditional Autumn slots. We got towards the end of November and were still saying ‘If we get a window, we’re going drilling.’ 

February was really dry for us. So whilst drilling Mascani, we thought to refine the decision for the following year – hence why we’ll be growing Isabel this coming season as a pure Spring crop.  

We’re seeing a general rise in Spring cropping across the industry. It has several benefits, and it’s something you favour too? 

We’ve always been into Spring cropping, dating back to 2014. That was largely off the back of Atlantis Resistance. We were spending a lot of money on Winter cropping and weren’t convinced it made sense to just carry on.  

At that point we weren’t growing Oats. We were double Spring cropping with Spring Wheat followed by Spring Barley, and generally got on well with it. There were times where we could have made a bit more money growing Winter Wheat, but we were determined to clean the weed pressure up.  

We have about 80ha of Spring cropping to go in the ground this year. We’ve gone through the pain barrier of growing Spring crops in previous years so have learned a lot.  

Ultimately, Spring crops are cheaper to grow, and we’ve got 30ha under a scheme for low-input Spring cropping. It certainly has a place in our rotation. 

And do you have any opinions on the introductions of SFI and the relationship between land allocation & food production?  

Yes, of course. It’s a sticking point and can be a controversial one. We have been agreed into an SFI which started March 1st.  

Our view is that we are in business, although we are food producers. If the government are incentivising us to be growing different things, in many ways we’d be remiss to say no.  

Also, the more you delve into it and how it’s going to work, you realise that one size will never fit all. But with our rotation, SFI’s can work nicely and allow us to introduce more diversity over the years. It’s something we’re interested in and will certainly be pursuing. We have been involved in HLS and CSS schemes before.  

We’ve always tried to look after the environment and now they’ve increased the payments, it can form what I would call a ‘true agri-business’ where biodiversity can go hand-in-hand with growing crops.  

You mentioned biodiversity - What other species are you looking to grow? 

Numerous different species within various cover crops and pollen/nectar mixes. We are bound to grow 6 species within our cover crops but are aiming to grow over ten. We believe more diversity will help the soil in terms of rooting and can be established with a cultivation if needs be. 

We try to assess what’s in front of us rather than blanket farming. We’re trying to be prescriptive and improve things for the long term.  

You’re using the YAGRO Farm Benchmarking service, known as Virtual Groups, and finding real value there? 

Huge value. Looking at the figures on our YAGRO platform is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s about the conversations you have off the back of it, in our quarterly meetings and WhatsApp groups.  

Within our industry there is so much underutilised data. Having YAGRO there to provide accurate insights at the click of a button is hugely beneficial. We get insights into spending which enables us to optimise our costs and build conversations through benchmarking.  

Collaboration and flexibility are things that I encourage other farmers to value. Peer-to-peer learning is integral. We’re all in this together. 

Looking ahead, what’s on the horizon? 

Well, everything we’ve drilled this season is still in the ground, and we’ll be taking all of it forwards.  

This year will be a huge year of learning for us and implementing what we’ve learned already. Margins are going to be tighter than ever, so we’ll be using YAGRO and particularly the Tracker Feature to understand our Costs of Production and our margins on a day-by-day basis to help us stay ahead.  

We’d like to congratulate Harry and the team at D F Middleditch & Son for winning our Best in Field Award 2023 for Winter Oats and wish them all the best for this coming season.  

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