Best in Field Awards: Spring Wheat - Pilkington Farms Partnership


Pilkington Farm Partnership has been credited with having the best cost of production for Spring Wheat in our system which they produced at £42.34/t. We spoke to Jamie Melrose to find out how they achieved this and to find out a bit more about what they have planned for the future. 

First of all, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I grew up on my family farm near Colchester, Essex and started working for my father. I then spent time away from farming and lived in Australia for a few years before returning to the UK and working in the city for an insurance company for a year. I started working full time on the farm when I was 21 and served my time there for ten years before wanting to expand my career. I went on to do a Masters at Writtle. In my last year there, I took a job with Anglian Pea Growers for two seasons covering the Norfolk area as a fieldsman. I then joined AT Bone (the company I currently work for) in 2015 as Growing Crops Manager on 1,200ha, and then in 2017, we took on the contractor’s role at Pilkington Farms Partnership and doubled our farm size to 2,500ha. It’s changing my role dramatically, moving more off the tools, so to speak (I did all the spraying on 1,200ha). In 2018 we changed our management structure, and I took on all of the Agronomy.

Please can you tell us a bit about the farm?

Pilkington Farm consists of around 2,000ha, of which 1,200ha is arable land run by Richard Pilkington, the company's Chairman. We farm the 1,200ha of arable land in Hertfordshire, and the remaining 800ha is made up of grassland and woodland. The grassland is grazed by sheep.The Farm1,200ha of arable landLarge team, contracting done by A.T. BoneChalky soil with a pH of 8

What soil type are you working with?

Our soil type ranges, but mainly we're working with chalk subsoil and most of the farm Is of PH 8+. Our soil type ranges from Sandy silt loam to medium clay loam.

Tell us a bit more about your Spring Wheat.

We originally started growing Mulika purely for the three crop rule, as we are contractors on six different farm partnerships, and we like to block our farms for rotational purposes. In years where we needed the whole farm down to Wheat, we would have a percentage of this down to Spring Wheat. We chose Mulika as our variety because we grow about 80% Milling Wheats across the business. Mulika has done very well for us, and on average, yields about 6-6.5t/ha; this year, our average yield was 6.1t/ha. In this instance, the Mulika grown on some of that block was a change of cropping, the field was due to go into Winter Wheat, but with the dire Autumn we had, we had to change to Spring Wheat.

Your cost of production for Malika was £42.24/t, which was the lowest in the system. 

In the field ‘HO Aspath’, your seed rate was 270.00 kg/ha, which higher than the YAGRO median of 204.75 kg/ha. Is there a reason for that higher seed rate? 

When it comes to all our seed rates, we are comfortable being higher than the average; I like to be bold with our crop drilling rates, which we do purely as a safety net. I would much rather our seed rate be on the higher side than not, as you only get one shot at it.  HO Aspath is on the heavier side, with a relatively poor seedbed, and I always want to have as many plants established early as I can with Spring cereals. 

Your seed costs were very low; you must be buying well?

The majority of our Wheat is home saved. I have to buy in bits and pieces over the year, and I'd buy in fresh seed for the seed crop the following year, but we do home save it all. 
Because of this our seed cost is attributed to our sale price and how well we are selling it.  

Your fungicide application was very lean, with your Chlorothalonil being applied at 500g/ha compared to the YAGRO median of 750g/ha. How have you been able to apply at such a low rate? 

We applied it at 1L/ha, which is the average rate you would go at, but we've only done it once. I would imagine our low rate is reflective of that, as others may have done it twice. We based our rate on the incredibly dry Spring, we couldn't see that weather changing any time soon, and if I'm honest, I didn't see the crop's yield potential. It was a case of cutting back on the costs as we won't be achieving a bumper yield anyway, and we wanted to keep our cost of production profitable. 

Your herbicide application was slightly higher than the YAGRO median, with Glyphosate being applied at almost double the rate. Why was your application so high? 

The Glyphosate was applied at double rate purely because we had sprayed the field off in the Autumn ahead of what was due to be Winter Wheat and then again in the Spring prior to drilling the Spring Wheat. We sprayed again to achieve that clean seedbed, and I don't mind spending the money on Glyphosate on land that is heavily infested with blackgrass. 

Looking at your costs of production in 2019 compared to 2020, your yields are down by a tonne per ha from 2019's 7.06t/ha average, but your overall cost per ton is down by nearly 50% (£42.24 vs £58.89). Your fertiliser and chemical cost per ha are both far lower. Was this a conscious decision to reduce your costs or dictated to by other factors? 

The yield average was indeed down; this was, I believe, down to a poorer Spring for Spring crops in 2020 compared to 2019. The fertiliser rates would have been the same both years, but we bought better in 2020 than in 2019. The chemical costs in 2020 are lower because of the weather we had; I could see that the yield potential was not there in the crop, and with all the dry and cooler weather we had, the disease pressure was extremely low. Thus, I made a conscious decision to cut costs down. The yield was down as our Spring Wheat was grown on better soil in 2019 and it was a more favourable Spring weatherwise; both factors made that higher yield much easier to achieve. 
I'd normally happily spend money if the potential is there. Hence, it's really interesting to see the Analytics proving that not spending the money has worked out much better and certainly gives us something to think about going forward. 

Who does your agronomy on-farm? 

Myself. One of the benefits of having in-house agronomy is that I see the crops every day, so I can be reactive to what is needed. It works better for us than having an outside agronomist who only sees the crops once a week or so. I still speak to the previous agronomist, a chap called Ed Schofield on a regular basis, and we talk about our plans and costs throughout the year, so I get a feel for what I want to be doing and what the costs are going to be to achieve that. 

You must be buying a lot of your products well, who is your main supplier and do you shop around? 

We only buy from Frontier. I have good relationships with them, and we talk through plans and pricing together through the season. We also have the bonus that we purchase a lot of chemical throughout the year. Because we have a reasonably big land bank, we get priced well from Frontier - we put a lot of business through them. 
We always have a rebate check, and I will use YAGRO to benchmark my costs throughout the year. If I see we’ve been overbuying, Frontier have a pledge to come down to where they should be.  

Are you be sticking with Mulika for harvest 2021? 

We are indeed; we've got Mulika in the ground already. It doesn't make up a huge proportion of our cropping, but it is a part of our rotation, and we tend to use it behind Sugarbeet now. 

Who do you credit with helping achieve this award? 

We are a very big team with a great management structure from Directors down to middle management. It's been an enormous team effort. The guys out in the fields are motivated by doing a good job and getting results. At the end of the day, we are contractors, so we have to be as good as we can be. 
I have quarterly Agronomy meetings with the Directors, so ongoing discussions are happening on how best to farm in that year and how best to go about business in the future.

Do you have any ELMS or Stewardship plans in place? 

We do not have either on Pilkington Farms Partnership currently but it is always an ongoing discussion, and we will be going down that route. We want to know where ELMS is going to sit before we do that. 

And finally, what are your plans for farming in the future and post BPS? 

We are not just farmers; we are a very diverse business, so for us, the loss of BPS won't be as critical; we've expanded a long way. However, that isn't to say that we won't be looking at getting back that £200/ha, and part of the reason we joined YAGRO in the first place was to help with that. I wanted to be ahead of the game; we won't be getting that £200/ha from just one thing; it's all about saving 1% or 2% here and there to be more profitable as a business. YAGRO fits into that well and I'm already seeing that we're saving ourselves £3/ha this Autumn on the ag chem side of things alone through your services. 
We’re looking to carry on what we are already doing, which is to grow the best quality crops to the highest output we can achieve. We make margin maps from the data on Gatekeeper and the telematics on all the combines, so we may not always farm every acre we have, but will look to incorporate ELMS and stewardship to trim out the land that has consistently brought our averages down. We have a very good management structure, so we are always looking at our cost of production and where we can maximise the business. We are ultimately looking to expand the farming business and take on more land and move into more divisions of agriculture. 
We want to push the organic side more and look at the possibility of going down the digestate route; it's one of the ongoing projects at Pilkington.

Congratulations to Jamie Melrose and the whole team at Pilkington for winning our Best in Field Award for having the best cost of production for their Spring Wheat!