Best in Field Harvest 2022 - Spring Barley


RH Topham and Sons Ltd have been credited with the lowest variable cost of production for Spring Barley at £33.33/t. Lauren Mann, our Partnership Manager, spoke to Ian Lutey the Farm Manager and Michael Topham to find out a little more about how they achieved this cost of production and what 2023 looks like for the farm.  

A 1400-hectare farm just outside of St Neots, Cambridgeshire. End to end, R H Topham is a narrow strip of around 9 miles, making travel across the farm a factor when ensuring the best use of the land, and optimising machinery and time. Predominantly sitting on heavy Hanslope loam clay the farm is all arable. Owned by the Topham family, with Ian Lutey as Farm Manger and two full-time staff supporting Ian.  

With the challenge of considerable blackgrass pressure on the farm, the traditional cropping of Wheat, Oilseed Rape and Spring Beans has been adjusted to introduce more spring cropping for better weed control. Spring Barley was introduced in 2011 with an end market of Malting Barley in mind and its strong performance on the farm has kept it in the rotation.  

So Ian, second year in row for lowest COP/t for Spring Barley, I assume it’s something you’re drilling this year?  

Yes, we’ve got Spring Barley again this year, a similar area this year having had 208ha in 2022 and 172ha in 2021. Looking at our historic performance, growing a 7t Spring Barley we’re well below the average cost of production and although there is always room for improvement, we must be doing something right.  

Last year you grew Laureate, are you planning to make any changes this year? 

It’ll be all Laureate again this year targeting the malting market as our end user. If you don’t grow what the market wants you then have a challenge to sell it. 

How have you found the collaboration between end users and yourself as a grower on varieties?  

It takes time for maltsters to move onto new varieties.  We have to wait for their move, rather than trying to be ahead. Even though the variety might be better agronomically you’ve got to wait for them to have demand for it.  

You’ve talked before about variable seed rates with your Spring Barley and there looks to be some variance in rates in 2022, are you still using variable seed rates? Your rates tend to also be around 30 kg/ha higher than the market medium for Laureate but your overall seed costs are at the lower end.  

I guess we’re fairly into variable seed rates, we have the equipment to do it so it doesn’t add any significant cost to vary rate with all crops.  It makes a big difference when we come to combining because you’ve got a more even crop going into the combine, which helps the machine perform better.  

We tend to go for a higher seed rate because it helps us mitigate against drought, which we are at high risk in our area. Then because we tend to home-save our seed the seed cost isn’t too high and easily covers the additional seed applied which explains why we sit where we do on your market range.  

There was a lot of discussion about fertilizer use and costs last year, and we asked in our last interview about fertilizer plans for the year.  Any reduction in applications last year?  

We actually didn’t change a great deal in the end, perhaps 5% or so but no major changes to our usual application rates.  We look at our Soil Mineral Nitrogen Sampling results and go off those, alongside the previous year's grain nitrogen and drilling date.  We’ll be doing much the same this year, we don’t want to change it too much and ‘break the system’ – it’s clearly working as it stands. If we sell it right, then the fertiliser application stacks up. I’m watching nitrogen prices, which are coming down at the moment. It’s a moving variable that you do have to react to, because it’s changing all the time; grain prices are coming down, and so is the nitrogen price.  

Any future plans on the farm? Tapping into ELMs and SFI? With 6 additional standards having just been set out, do you think there is some opportunity there? 

Yes, we’ve just applied to renew our higher-tier countryside stewardship which we’re waiting to hear back from. We’ve been in stewardship agreements for 15-plus years here, so we’re just waiting to get the go-ahead on the new higher tier. After that’s agreed and in place, then we’ll look to bolt in SFI wherever we think it will fit economically. We are in the SFI pilot, but a lot of those options we already have in the higher tier scheme to some extent.  

There’s a cost in participating in these, but it’s all about marginal gains, and it does give you some balancing of payments in a time of volatility. You know you’ve got that steady income every year for 5 years, so there is an element of risk management with these payment schemes.   

You only had one field of Winter Barley last year, do you have any in the ground for 2023? How does that split between Winter and Spring drilling work?  

We do have a bit more in this year, the Winter Barley is in the rotation really to try and plan around our Oilseed Rape.  

Are you continuing with the same rotation? 

We haven’t got any Linseed planned at the minute. The break crops are still the challenge, we’ve got some Winter Beans this year because of the dry weather and less OSR. It's break crops we are struggling with in terms of making them economically viable. Autumn was pretty kind. As to what Spring is going to offer us it can all change.  

You alluded to risk management and risk mitigation, which is at the forefront of farming at the minute.  Is that something you apply to your crop agronomy as well? 

Yes, we’ve dropped Milling Wheats because they are too high-risk agronomically for us and we’re looking to do what we can to reduce the exposure to unknown market forces. That might be the wrong approach, but that was the theory last Autumn and we’ve made that call so we’ll wait and see with hindsight if that was the right call. We’d rather make that call with good sound logic and be wrong than not make the call and be wrong!   

What does benchmarking help you to do as a farm? 

It’s a good indicator of where the farm is, where the strengths are and where the weaknesses of the business are, as well as pointing to areas that need more attention. I mean there might be a reason for why you are high or low in a certain area, but it gives you a place to start looking and highlights where to spend the time investigating further. 

And you are a member of our National Steering Group, do you think farm collaboration is important? 

Yes, and will only become more important going forward because there seem to be challenges with machinery depreciation, massive labour challenges and more options of how to use your land… cropping, environmental, and options around carbon. There are certainly things coming that collaboration will be an important factor in, if not just to get some outside perspectives.  

Michael, what would you say are the most important factors for improving farm operations over the next 3-5 years, and what are you doing to achieve those? 

Both risk mitigation and continually improving the efficiency of our operations is important to us.  

We mitigate risks in several ways: firstly, we are increasing the contribution of non-farming activities, such as investments in our industrial estate, or solar and housing developments. 

Secondly, within the farm, we will continue to spread our crops and seasons, using a low-cost approach to machinery. Ian's contribution to the growing is demonstrated by his success with Spring Barley.  

The adoption of tested technology is also important, and the use of on-farm crop trials to look at various approaches to crop growing.  

As Ian mentioned, environmental programmes provide a buffer for crop performance variation as well as the opportunity to improve the cost performance and sustainability of our crop production; for example, through soil improvements.  

We are also investing in drainage in a few selected areas where we believe the return is clear. 

Are you adjusting your strategy to combat current volatility in prices and ag-flation?  

There is the managing risk and driving efficiency we’ve already discussed, but it is more important that we analyse the end market the best we can for crop sales (we do use some outside advice on the markets). We will continue to sell and buy forward as a hedge and try to be opportune. Ian keeps close to merchants and works to secure good malting and milling premiums, along with securing spring oat outlets through the excellent quality he manages to produce. 

Why YAGRO? What part of the platform are you finding the most value? 

YAGRO is an excellent platform for taking in our data and ensuring it is 'clean' and comparable to other farms. The platform provides excellent analytics to explore the data from which insights can be achieved for variation between variety and field performance for example, and over time. 

It also provides us with the opportunity to compare and discuss with other farmers via YAGRO’s Virtual Groups, which in turn can add further insights through their experiences and collaboration.  

We are also keen to see how the YAGRO machinery and labour costs project develops to add that element into the analysis. And I am interested in the production of high-level summary reports on a regular basis as well to understand the overall farm performance and how that is broken down from various contributions over time.  

Congratulations once again to RH Topham and Sons for their impressive production and winning YAGRO Best in Field for Spring Barley, for the second year running!