Best in Field 2023. Little Staughton Farm, Spring Barley


Little Staughton Farm have won our Best in Field award for Spring Barley 2023, with a smashing variable Cost of Production of £47.16/t. We met the Farm Manager Chris Papworth on site in Bedfordshire to shine a light on how they operate.  

First time winning a Best in Field award Chris, how’re you feeling?  

Surprised! But very happy. Thank you. It’s a nice accolade.  

Why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself and the farm.  

I’m the working Farm Manager here at Little Staughton Farm and I’ve been here 11 years now. We’re 1500 acres, all arable, growing a usual rotation of cereals – Winter Wheat, Spring Barley, Winter Barley, and Winter Field Beans.  

Up until last year we were also growing Oilseed Rape, but we’re having a break from OSR this year, and waiting to see whether that is a permanent change. As with many other growers in the area it became harder and harder to grow.  

We’re on heavy clay soil. Which can be really good, but also hard work for cultivations at certain times of year. You must pick your windows when conditions are right, looking out the window rather than dates on a calendar.  

Also, in the team I have a colleague called Ben who works on the farm and as a gamekeeper, plus some seasonal support. We also have two agronomists – Ed Schofield and Jock Wilmot.   

We are seeing a general increase in Spring cropping across the industry, but you’ve grown Spring Barley for several seasons now – Why have you repeatedly chosen to include Spring Barley in the rotation? 

When I started here 11 years ago, it was right around when Atlantis resistance began building up in Winter Wheat. The rotation in this area was commonly Wheat / Wheat / Rape, and Blackgrass was becoming an issue. We were always going to have some Blackgrass due to the heavy clay, but it really it became a case of ‘how do we reduce numbers as much as possible?’ 

Malting Spring Barley had always been grown on the farm, so we increased the area and used that to combat the issue of Blackgrass in our rotation. In some cases, we grew two Spring Barley’s in a row, which really helped with the Blackgrass and played a role in getting us to being fairly clean.  

It can also be a relatively low input crop. So, depending on prices and the season, it can be a good crop to grow. Current malting values are pretty good, so that’s another reason for growing it.  

It’s a crop that we can rely on which doesn’t cost the Earth and generally has good returns.  

You’re 2023 Spring Barley variable Cost of Production came striding in at £47.16/t, way below Market Median of £92.62/t. What decisions are you making that help keep your costs down throughout the year?  

To start at the beginning - We run a cultivator through in the Autumn, often a low disturbance subsoiler, which moves the ground enough to get the chit of the Blackgrass. And that’s our cultivations done in the Autumn when conditions are right. Then we try to leave it until Spring.  

Depending on Blackgrass numbers we might have to spray off once or twice between drilling. Once in the Autumn not long after cultivating, and then another flush before drilling in the Spring. Seasons like that we’d incur higher costs. 

We’ve grown Laureate for some years now, and we use home-saved seed which is good for cost saving. We test it every year for germination, and simply clean the grain and reuse it.  

I try to play each season as it comes. If a crop is looking good, and weather conditions are in our favour, we’ll reduce spend on fungicide where we can to help keep costs down. 

You mention Autumn cultivation; What’s the most useful piece of machinery you have that’s helping with your Spring Barley?  

Recently we’ve acquired a Horsch Avatar (disc drill) which has helped enormously.  

We often found, especially when it’s wet like now, with our old drill we had to wait longer and also prepare the ground for the tines. Doing that, if you go too early you get poor seed-soil contact and you’re then forever playing catch-up.  

Now, for the last two Spring Barley seasons, we’ve been able to move the ground a little bit in the Autumn, then just drill straight into that seedbed. So, this has reduced costs of cultivations for our Spring cropping.  

We’ve tried cover crops again this season with the new disc drill. Looking back 5 years ago, with the old tine drill, all the benefits that cover cropping brought was largely undone as the moisture kept for so long that we needed to wait too long, and often had to cultivate again in the Spring for a seedbed.  

With the new drill we only need a bit of dry soil on top and be able to travel. As long as there’s good soil temperature, we know we can get the seed in good order and hopefully end up with some decent yields. 

Looking over your Analytics Platform, there have clearly been changes in strategy for your Spring Barley. This year you’ve knocked 30% off your fertiliser costs compared to last year, whilst achieving a 5% increase in yield. What would you say are the reasons for this? 

Look, the fact is that we always strive for Malting quality, but we don’t always get it. Because of the heavy ground we’re on, a lot of that depends on weather conditions and how much Nitrogen gets taken up by the crop. 

At the time of sowing last season, the Malting prices looked really good, so we were conscious not to put on too much Nitrogen and pulled back our rates. Largely this was driven by end-market requirements, as we can’t have more than around 1.65% N in the grain, otherwise the maltsters aren’t happy.  

A big part of the decision to cut back was also prices. National commodity prices have their affect. Although we bought fertiliser well last season, it still led us to apply less because of the cost. So, we’re reacting to the season in that sense.  

We knew we might get a bit less yield but hoped to still achieve Malting quality. Turns out both aspects went well. On a different year maybe it wouldn’t have gone so well.  

Sticking with your inputs; your chemical spend has changed also. Herbicide has over doubled compared to last year, and fungicide is up around 20%. More chem, less fert, is this two sides of the same coin?  

No, it’s more on a field-by-field basis. Where the Spring Barley was grown last year the Blackgrass numbers were quite bad. So, we went in with a heavy pre-em. Last year we also had a few fields with Wild Oats in, so that’s another increase in Herbicide cost as Axial was required.  

We don’t always use pre-em. Especially in a wet year like this, when the Spring Barley doesn’t get drilled until March. Otherwise, you hit a dry period and don’t get the efficacy.  

Obviously, the big goal is to farm in a manner that’s profitable, but it does seem like we’re often fighting Blackgrass to be profitable.  

You’re clearly benchmarking with your Analytics Platform. Have you always benchmarked, or is this something that’s new to you? 

Farm benchmarking is something that I’ve done previously. But the Analytics Platform itself was new to me. Having a platform where you can benchmark and do everything else in one place really makes sense.  

I always strive to do as well as possible. Often, I’m critical of my own management decisions, as there’s always something you can do better.  

Having an Analytics Platform means I can sit down and answer questions like ‘how can I improve this?’ or ‘Why is this happening?’ and by looking at the numbers and figures, you can benchmark your own performance and try to be more profitable.  

There’s always things you can’t control, external factors like the weather, but other things you can change - and Analytics helps a lot with those.  

Let’s talk more about your Spring Barley. 8 fields last year all one variety – Laureate. This variety is MBC approved and you’ve mentioned a lot of your grain goes for Malting. What else is it you like about Laureate? 

MBC approval was the main reason behind choice initially, and a lot of decisions are made for the end market.  

Prior to Laureate we grew RGT Planet which the maltsters also liked, but Laureate came along with slightly higher yields. Initially we tried half a field, then a couple of fields to compare varieties. Laureate yielded higher so we swapped.  

Laureate is proving to be quite a reliable variety. It handles disease pressure, tends not to lodge and we’re getting on well with it.  

But the overall variety decision was a combination of end market and yield. Premiums at the moment are fairly good so we’re certainly hoping they stay good. We’ll be growing Laureate again next year and have already cleaned the seed, so we’re ready to go when the weather allows.  

These last few seasons it’s been incredibly difficult to predict what’s going to happen with so many external factors impacting prices and commodities. We just try to control what we can and grow the best possible crop.  

Looking forwards, what’s next for Little Staughton Farm? Any goals for next season and beyond? 

Now I’ve won Best in Field this year, I’ll have to try to defend my crown next season!  

Joking aside, I just try to do my job as best as possible. Take things on a field by field basis and decide where to cut costs and where to spend, trying to identify opportunities and potential.  

We do a lot of variable rates on the farm. Seed and Nitrogen, which helps push stronger areas of fields.  

It’s just about making conscious decisions on where to reign spends in or push things more. We like to gamble where it’s sensible, but scale back where we don’t see us recouping much.  

We’ve done variable rate Nitrogen through SOYL for the last six years, and variable seed rate for seven years. This makes perfect sense to us especially when fertiliser prices were sky high. You need to be sure you’re only spending on areas that are going to pay you back.  

Do you have any top tips for growing a successful Spring Barley crop? 

Patience in the Spring is important on our soil. 

If you can get it established well, with good seed-soil contact and in good conditions then that’s the best start you could possibly give it.  

As the season goes on, only spend what you think is worth it. Bring costs down where you can and push crops which have potential.  

And make sure it doesn’t lodge! Keep it standing if at all possible. The yield difference between a standing crop of Barley, and one that’s brackled and the combine struggles to pick up off the floor, is very noticeable.  

So, what’s going to help you defend your Best in Field crown next year? 

I’m lucky that I have two very good agronomists who understand how we like to run the farm.  

It’s a group effort, my colleague on the farm has excellent attention to detail and supports how I manage the farm. Having someone you can rely on is important. Knowing you can trust the person in the seat of the tractor and trust their judgement is essential.  

And now I’ve said that, if I don’t win next year's award, at least I’ve got someone else to blame! 

We’d like to congratulate Chris and the team at Little Staughton Farm for their impressive Spring Barley production, and being crowned Best in Field winners, 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