Best In Field Awards: Spring Wheat and Spring Barley


RH Topham and Sons have been credited with the lowest variable cost of production for both Spring Wheat at £36.69/t and Spring Barley at £34.07/t. We visited Ian Lutey, Farm manager at R H Topham and Sons Ltd to find out a little more about how they have achieved these impressive figures.

Ian, first off, can you tell us a little about yourself and the farm setup.

I’m the farm manager here and have been for the past 14 years. I grew up mixed farming in Cornwall and then gained a Bsc in Agriculture @ Reading.

The farm is 1400 hectares just outside of St Neots Cambridgeshire, it’s a ringfenced narrow strip about 9 miles long. We are predominantly on hanslope series boulder clay. Cropping is all arable with stewardship and a small area of permanent grass. The team consists of myself and two others full time.

When I arrived the cropping was Wheat, Oilseed Rape and Spring Beans. We had our fair share of blackgrass, so we needed to introduce some additional spring cropping for the weed control. A friend was growing Malting Barley on heavy land, so I knew it could work for us and in 2011 I introduced Spring Barley into the rotation. That was a very dry year but it performed well and off the back of that margin, it was kept in the rotation.
You’re sharing knowledge with other farmers, where do you tend to go for advice?

Yes, I use peer learning in various circles, we will end up talking shop too much even on nights out. I’m also part of Beeswax Green Crop Information too. So, a combination of various sources.

I do the majority of the agronomy myself. I’m BASIS, FACTS and BETA trained. I have a strategic agronomist - Matt Clark from Agrii who comes to give advice through the growing season. Having the qualifications is so valuable – being able to drive discussions regarding the performance and strategy the crops myself. It’s all part of sharing the aims with the bigger team and all striving for those marginal gains.
Do you have a key area of focus on the farm?

A combination of everything really – we’re always looking to achieve economic yields. We’re in a higher tier stewardship scheme, and the environmental aspect is important to us. 

We try to use the latest technology to try and keep things relatively up to date with things like variable rate.

We run lean on the machinery side of things, so keeping that lean whilst trying to make sure everything gets serviced and is reliable for when we need it. We only run one sprayer, so we are stretched sometimes on capacity – there is a lot of logistics around adjusting timings and mixes.

And we try to make the day as long as possible when needed!  

Where are you using variable rate?

We’ve used variable rate seed for a few years. We’ve dropped in and out of using variable rate fertiliser depending on the crop and the price of fertiliser. We’ve seen the best results with Oilseed Rape over other crops.  
And what are your fertiliser plans this year? Were you happy with how you’d bought it?

Not perfect. But yeah, it's about risk management. We run liquid and solid which gives some flexibility. CF was expensive the other year, so we use Urea, imported AN and liquid depending on what’s a good deal at the time. 

I’m not fully decided on a plan for the year, it’s somewhat dependent on the weather. I'll review these decisions as the season unfolds.
Looking at the Analytics system, your Spring Barley has the lowest variable cost of production we’ve seen this year. Over the past seven years, you have consistently been 45% lower than the market average.

It’s all about risk, and good yields! They're very interlinked, I mean they can go in opposite ways, but they’re generally interlinked. The more risk you take, the more chance you’ve got of hitting the highs or the lows to some extent, whether that’s great marketing or growing the crop.

And your chemistry is far lower than most…

It's attitude to risk: a lot of agronomists tend to err on the side of insurance. Whereas, if I think I've gone wrong, we can come back and do something about it. We tend to use relatively bespoke mixes on fields, so we don't necessarily blanket spray across a crop or block.
In terms of the risk, I assume the farm owner has the same views on risk as you?

He's quite focused on low fixed costs. That means our risk is significantly higher if for example we lose a vehicle at the critical time. We run reasonably lean kit list for 1400 hectares. Four tractors, 1 sprayer and 1 combine which we clocked up 400 hours on last harvest.

And reducing costs by reducing numbers of passes in the field?

We’re trying to move towards a greener, regenerative system, whatever that means. But yield is still important. We haven't seen the yields with direct drilling. I haven’t got an out and out direct drill, we have a Vaderstad and a tine drill for when it gets too wet for the Vaderstad

We drill by conditions rather than calendar date. We do internal trials as well, but I think the weather is still the overriding factor.
Regen is a whole separate topic to cover. Are you starting on a path to regen?

I'm watching what other people are doing with interest. We operate a min till cultivation policy and have used direct one pass drilling where conditions have allowed.  I have used a plough in my time here, but our blackgrass situation is now manageable. We are focused on robustness and reliability of establishment conditions. We trial smaller areas first on all these things - you have to justify everything you do.

You’ve been growing RGT Planet and Laureate the past few years, are those varieties set to stay for you?

We are all Laureate this year, predominantly to ease management of storage. For me, choosing which variety to grow is driven by the end user. If there’s a variety the maltsters want then it’s going to be easier to sell and get contracts for. It’s easy to grow a variety too soon and the end user then not accept it as a preferred variety. 
Looking at your Spring Wheat – you’re growing KWS Coshise. Why that variety?

For Yield and potential premium. Also, with one combine we need to spread the harvest window if possible. We are around 90% home-saved seed, which gives us more control of quality.
Looking at your chemistry on the spring wheat, it’s low: Epoxiconazole, Prothioconazole and Pyraclostrobin – all around half the median rate we saw for the 2021 harvest.

They were decisions based on disease pressure in the field on the day.  I suppose it was relatively dry, and the pressure was reasonably low at that point in time. It’s knowing when to spend, looking at what is happening in the field and taking a view on the long term forecast.
Any future plans on the farm, if you're saying exploring regen?

Growing commodities is what we do. Basically, we add premiums everywhere we can. And then looking to tap into any future opportunities: ELMS and SFI cover most of these on farm opportunities.
And opportunities outside of agriculture?

In addition to the farm we already have a commercial estate and some residential properties. Given our location in the arc  between Oxford and Cambridge there arc good opportunities to expand these and to draw on the government's wider development plans for the region. We also have quite a lot of woodland which fits into enhancing the environmental programme.

In terms of BPS, have you got a plan to factor in the loss of that? 

We are already in Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship and part of the SFI pilot. These schemes require significant more work to get the payments than BPS, but they contribute financial stability to the business, as well as fitting well with the business owners strategic plan post BPS.

We’re in a cycle of high commodity prices, so the BPS pain is being hidden by those high commodity prices; Malting Barley being at £290/t, a few years ago was £130/t. 

It's 2023 harvest that could be the high risk season: fertiliser price could stay high and commodity prices could be back to where they were.

It’s about focusing on what you're doing and doing it better: things you can control, like being aware of your costs. Our variable costs are already pretty tight, but I do think that you can be too cheap, it’s all about spending in the right places. 

Marketing is where Agriculture in general is pretty poor. It's managing your risk - a £10 swing in price makes big difference. We use ODA for help on the marketing – putting facts and figures behind what we do there.

It's like lots of technology: look at the tech for nitrogen use, it hasn't appeared to be economically viable over the last 10 years. Now the fertiliser price is up 300%, these things are worth revisiting. We're trying some inhibitors and we'll probably use some more variable rate this year.