Best in Field 2023. J.R & E.H Nott, Winter Barley


James & Debbie Nott at J.R & E.H Nott have won the Best in Field Award 2023 for Winter Barley with a smashing variable COP/t of £58.21. This open & fascinating chat with James explores the methods he uses to operate as efficiently as possible within a modern, diversified farming business. 

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

I’m James Nott and I farm in partnership with my wife, Debbie, here in Ovington on the Suffolk / Essex border. We’re a family farm, and we’ve been farming for many generations.  

More recently, we’ve diversified by going into contract farming to spread our overheads – alongside other incomes, such as lettings, to make a business which is sustainable and can keep going into the future.  

What sort of Arable rotation are you running?  

Nothing hard and fast. OSR has featured in the past, but last year was probably the worst year we’ve had for OSR with flea beetle shredding yields locally. We’re also getting a bit sick of Winter Beans as they offer no margin, which is important to our CFA. 

We grow a lot of Barley and Wheat, and Sugar Beet too. I have a love-hate relationship with Sugar Beet, but at £40/t they’ve crossed our palms with silver! I’ve also started growing Grain Maize.  

So, we’re in an ever-changing rotation to manage Blackgrass, maximise First Wheats and find a break crop that delivers.  

With SFI’s coming along now, I think that’s a game changer and we’re all going to evolve our thought processes. I feel like SFI will feature on all farms now – it’s just a case of getting the best out of them.

In terms of agronomy, what’s your current set up?  

I have an independent agronomist called Michael Chapman. But I’m BASIS and FACTS trained myself and I’m heavily involved in the agronomy as the key decision-maker. I use our agronomist as a sounding board to bounce ideas from. At those times Michael and I walk the farm together, and he’s invaluable.  

What I like about doing agronomy in-house is that we’re prepared to take our own risks. Some agronomy can be defensive, in my opinion, which leads to overspending – but by taking the decision ourselves we can be a bit braver. And live by the sword, so to speak.  

And Wilson Wraight are supporting you consultatively?  

Yes, we’ve used Wilson Wraight since the late 90’s as a business consultant. We use the budget and reporting system they have. It’s a brilliant management tool because it shows you where you’re going and where you’re at. Plus being able to analyse what you’ve done. It supports all parts of our business.  

Picking up on your rotation – you have won Best in Field for your Winter Barley, harvest 2023. You took a break from growing Winter Barley since 2016. Why was this? 

Winter Barley is a fickle crop. There was a time when it wasn’t making any money for us, so we gave it up for a while. When the market firmed back up in ’21 / ’22 we could suddenly see that Winter Barley could make a good Gross Margin again.  

Plus, at that time, we could see the issues coming with OSR. When you have a big expensive combine, you need it to have a full season’s work. So, I’ve reduced OSR and began growing Winter Barley again as the price of cereals was increasing.  

But as of today - Barley is trailing Wheat by £20/t, which doesn’t look great on paper. 

Admittedly, although we grew Tardis last year, I’ve sown Craft for this year. Malting Premiums are good, so we want to see what this does for our Gross Margin. 

We try to adapt to the market.  

Sticking with your Winter Barley – your variable Cost of Production was around £58/t. Down on the Market Median of £83/t (rounded figures.) Could you touch upon some of the main reasons your costs were low?  

We took decisions to manage our variable costs right from the beginning. Rather than going down the hybrid route and stacking up seed costs immediately, we chose Tardis as a robust, two-row conventional variety.  

Generally, we try to use home-saved seed when possible to save costs.  

The Herbicide strategy is to put Avadex on Barley because the Wild Oats and Bromegrass get controlled well. Then I just use generic Flufenacet and Defy in pre-emergence, which basically comprises the Herbicide programme. The Avadex is the expensive part, but it brings a lot to the party.  

For Fungicide, Winter Barley is an interesting one. Looking at trial data, I decided to take a generic route and aimed at spending just the right amount, which lead to quite a low-cost Fungicide programme for standard yields. Euskatel, Prothioconazole with a bit of Bugle.  

I use Fibrophos for our P & K, Urea for our Nitrogen (as it’s cheapest per kilo) then straight Ammonium Sulphate for Sulphur. This keeps fertiliser costs managed. And it all builds into overall cost controlling.  

At the end of the day, you just need these basic building blocks. There’s a lot of frills out there but we try to keep it simple. I use Fram Farmers who hunt out the best prices.  

Are you using field-level data to support any of these decisions?  

It would be very hard in a business this size to strip it down to a field-by-field basis. We’ve built this business on efficiency. Today, we’re getting £155/t for Wheat, in 1984 my father was selling it for £120/t. Why are we still in a profitable business? Because we’re efficient.  

We only own one combine, one sprayer, a couple of tractors ... We have lots of drills but that’s just because the weather seems to change every Autumn. I’d do it all with one drill if I could.  

As I manage many fields, I admit there’s times I get data overload. We’re accumulating a huge amount of data, and I don’t fancy sitting in the office pouring over it, but I admit to being a technophobe when it comes to computers. 

We block farm and manage crops in blocks. Taking land out of production for SFI, I believe, could be a good purpose for field level data.  

Many farmers would rather be in the open air compared to in the office. Talking of drills & tractors, what machinery are you operating? 

Predominantly John Deere over the years. There are some other brands in the mix. I’ve always been a Vaderstad Rapid man – that’s my favourite piece of machinery. When the Rapid is going well on this land that’s really something.  

It’s true that well sown is half grown. Drill Winter Barley badly and it will pay you back badly. Even on these variable soil types the Vaderstad Rapid gives us good, consistent emergence.  

Going back to inputs briefly, I wanted to ask if there’s been wholesale agronomic changes or whether it’s all to do with your variable approach. Because since 2016, your chem spend per hectare has decreased (including a third less insecticide in 2023 compared to your previous Winter Barley harvest.) Are these deliberate cutbacks?  

I’d say this is more due to shifting drilling dates and our willingness to use generic products compared to more expensive R&D alternatives.  

We stuck with lots of old chemistry, and by working our way around the options we’re able to save money.  

One thing that increased was PGR. Was this due to fears of lodging?  

Well, we had a really wet March, and I’d put on a fair bit of Nitrogen. We did begin fearing the Barley would grow rapidly and go flat. I’m cautious with PGR, but if it goes flat your yield can halve, and we made that early-May decision to go hard on PGR. And the Tardis stood.  

KWS Tardis does have a good reputation for straw strength. Do you have access to a straw market? Newmarket isn’t far from here? 

We do bale all our straw. It goes to Snetterton Power Station. I essentially use baling straw as a management tool, and it brings extra income to the CFA. Also, you must be careful with the Carbon-Nitrogen ratios when leaving chopped straw to break down.  

On the sell-side, do you have a particular system or strategy? You seemed to have sold it all in one go last year.  

Yes, because prices were high. But I’m a big fan of pool marketing. You’re able to discuss it openly around a table in a Contract Farming Agreement. 

The trouble is when I sell well I get asked ‘why didn’t you sell more?’ And if I sell badly I get asked ‘why did you sell so much?’... You can go from hero to zero.  

By giving it to a third party you can trust them to do their best. It’s their professional job to market in your interest.  

Finally, what’s on the horizon next season and beyond for J.R & E.H Nott? 

I feel like farming is about to enter a really tricky period. The next two years are going to be tough. Some farmers made a lot of money in 2023, but in 2024 I fear we’ll suffer with prices and cash could become problematic.  

We’ve spent a long time building a progressive business, but it’s time now to batten down the hatches. To conserve, consolidate and ride this bumpy road. 

We’d like to congratulate James & Debbie Nott at J.R & E.H Nott once again for being crowned Best in Field winners 2023 for Winter Barley. And thank them for taking their time to speak with us. 

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