Best in Field Award Harvest 2022 - Oilseed Rape and Spring Beans
Alan Clifton-Holt of AA Clifton has been credited with having the best Cost of Production on Oilseed Rape and Spring Field Beans for the 2022 harvest. We spoke to Alan to find out what the farm is doing to produce Campus at £88.29/t and Lynx at £75.89/t.
Based in Romney Marsh, Kent, AA Clifton comprises of 1,400 hectares of arable cropping along with commercial and renewable enterprises. Two-thirds of the farm sits on marsh ground with the remaining land reaching up on to the North Downs and the soils are made up of clay silts, sand and downland..
The main cropping for the farm is Wheat, Barley, Beans, Oats and Oilseed Rape with Linseed as a backup. As Alan puts it “the mix has come from years of tinkering and fine-tuning to maximise performance focused on First Wheat output. The Farm targets high wheat yields of 11.5-12 tonne per hectare, with parts of the farm able to deliver 14 tonnes. Chasing yield with this high in, high out approach can make it expensive”.
With a longstanding team of Alan, 3 full-time operators plus casual labour in the summer, Alan's key goal alongside yield is to reduce the overall risk of the farm. We sat down with Alan to discuss what works, what’s being changed and his plans going forward.
Alan, your cost of production for OSR is coming out at £88.29/t, an impressively low figure with the inflationary challenges faced this year. Can you tell us more about how you grow, what is for some an unpredictable crop?
We’re ruthless with our Oilseed Rape, cutting out any field that doesn’t establish well by November. This year (2022 harvest) we drilled the 40 hectares which resulted in the £88.29/t cost of production but back in November we decided not to go forward with another 60 ha we had drilled in early September as it hadn’t established well enough.
Oilseed Rape seed isn’t exactly cheap, that must be a hard pill to swallow taking that land out of production?
Not really; the land taken out from OSR is then drilled with a Linseed crop and I treat that OSR seed as a cover crop that I would be paying £100 per hectare to establish anyway. To me it's all about the risk of it, we make the decision whether to take the crop forward in November just before we start to spend serious money on the crop with the likes of an Astrokerb application which alone is about £40 per hectare (nearly 10% of my total variable input cost). Taking it out of production is far cheaper than taking it all the way at a full spend and getting half the yield. This year we planted 250ha of OSR and it looks like we’ll be taking a third of that forward.
What other break crops are there? We’re already growing Beans and Oats, and we don’t have access to Sugar Beet. Grass would work but we’re not in a livestock area so we’re sticking with our ruthless approach to Oilseed Rape!
I’m using cover cropping across the farm, it stabilises our soils which we need down here and reduces the overall risk for us. I delved into cover cropping with YAGRO the other day, comparing wheat yield following spring oats on stubble, cover crop and grazed cover crop. The results were showing that wheat into stubble produces a consistently higher yield, closely followed by a straight cover crop whereas grazed cover crop delivers a tonne and a half less yield than the other two. We wouldn’t have known that without going through the fine detail and analysing past performance and although stubble just comes out on top, we want the cover crops in there for the soil health.
Looking at the breakdown of costs for your OSR last year, you’ve got one of the highest yields at 5.53t/h but your seed, fertiliser and chemical input costs are all low.
Well, I think that is in part down to mindset, we’re all about finding and challenging what we do to achieve those marginal gains.
Insecticides are purposefully low as we aim not to apply any unless there is an incredible reason to do so. The rest is from working closely with our Agronomist, Neil Harper at Agrii. Neil has been advising me for the past 6 years or so, he justifies everything he does, and his walking fee is based on gross margin performance. That was a concept he came to us with, and we liked it. Effectively we benchmark the overall performance of the crop and pay him accordingly. He has ‘skin in the game’ and I want good advice so I’m happy to pay for that.
We are quite heavy on our trace elements (in the top 25% according to YAGRO) – we believe in the research Neil has put forward and it delivers for us. I put my trust in him and we’re getting good crops and yields and if we don’t, we interrogate the data as to why that is.
We’ve spoken in the past about grain sales, and I believe you use CRM Agri for advice on wheat, do you use them for your OSR sales too?
Yes, I’ve been working with James Bolesworth and the team at CRM Agri for a few years. The biggest thing that is going to affect gross margin performance is our sales strategy. We could be the best farmer growing the best crop but if we sell it badly, we’ll be wasting our time. There are people in London who sit and track prices all day long. I don’t have time to do that, so I pay James and his team to ensure I am selling above the average.
Last year obviously went completely out of the window in terms of being able to predict what was going to happen. We try to grow for a market sensibly and take the assumption that the market will be there when we come to sell.
Looking at your Spring Beans, you are growing beans at £75.89/t. I take it those are there as a break crop?
Yes, I’m a big fan of spring beans. We get consistent yields across years and fields. We used to grow vining peas and the combining peas, but 4 years ago we moved into spring beans as the peas weren't consistent. Pulses set up wheat very well and we have an underlying black grass problem so we can spray for that before putting the beans in.
We go with a high seed rate with the idea that if the crop is thick, it shades out the blackgrass. With beans, if you have a thick crop, you’ll get the yields too.
We don’t like spraying insecticides and, making the grade for human beans is a lottery so all the beans are grown to go for feed.
It’s a challenging time in terms of rising costs and volatile grain markets. Is there anything you are doing differently or looking to do differently?
Yes, looking at our Winter Wheat we took some great analysis out of our YAGRO platform and particularly sitting down with our Kent Virtual Group, where we reviewed our drilling rates and windows compared to yield and gross margin. Those that had drilled in a tighter window at the beginning of October delivered the best results for yield and gross margin. We took a decision off the back of that analysis and Virtual Group discussion to increase our drill capacity to narrow our drilling window. We rented a drill this season and off the back of the success we had, we made the decision to buy the drill, a second-hand Varderstad. Now instead of being dictated to by the weather in a 6-week window, we can shrink that down to a 2-and-a-half-week window. We drill winter barley in a week and then the winter wheat in a week and a half. Looking at the crops established this year, that decision looks to have paid off, they look well, walk relatively dry and you only need to find a field where there isn’t a crop and it walks very differently. We’ll be doing full analysis on that once harvest is done but so far it looks to be the right decision.
In terms of prices, it's difficult. We try to be ruthless with pricing – but it is hard to do so, Farmers are price takers in the industry, and it is hard to argue with suppliers. We’re using more manure and constantly looking at our fertiliser usage. Looking at the Oilseed Rape and the risk attached, 5 years ago I would have taken the whole lot through to harvest but I can't do that anymore, fertiliser and ag chem prices make it impossible to do so.
I focus on establishing crops well, being ruthless if that first growth isn’t great. I challenge myself and my advisors on inputs and constantly review my machinery setup. Then we work hard with our advisors, both agronomic and sales to get the best crop and sell it well.
Congratulations to Alan and the team at AA Clifton for being YAGRO’s Best in Field Oilseed Rape and Spring Field Beans 2022.