Best in Field Harvest 2022 - Spring Wheat
James Hawes and the team at Westfield Farms have been credited with the lowest Cost of Production for Spring Wheat, at £54.50/t. Ross Dawson, our Customer Success Manager, sat down with James to find out more.
Could you please tell us a bit about yourself and the farm?
We are fourth generation farmers. Currently, there's me, my dad and my brother on the farm, covering roughly 700 acres. We’re split between mostly owned, some rented and a small amount of single year crop licence for potatoes and onions. That’s the mainstay – and then the cereals and sugar beet fit in around that.
Regarding your background, have you always been on the farm?
We’re born and bred. My brother has been here since leaving school, and my dad the same. I worked elsewhere for a few years to gain some experience on different farms, before committing to the family farm from then on.
Looking at spring wheat, we see your cost of production is at £54.40/t. Considering inflation and rising costs that’s a pretty impressive figure. Can you tell us more about how you've managed to keep your costs down on Spring Wheat in particular?
A key factor keeping cost of production low was our use of cover crops preceding the crop, and the use of direct drilling. Also, we used minimal fertiliser inputs, largely driven by the rising cost of inputs but also a desire to learn where we could cut back here and there and what impact that would have.
Our herbicide and fungicide regime are pretty standard, but it certainly didn’t have much fertiliser thrown at it. Establishment costs were low because of the use of cover crop, therefore there wasn’t a great need for cultivation, which made direct drilling a cheap option. And the seed costs of the cover crop were actually recovered through being able to charge a local shepherd for grazing rights.
I know that you are a member of Fengrain, who store your wheat crop. But in terms of crop sales, do you use the pools at Fengrain or do you manage your own sales of grain in the central store?
We don't use the pools at Fengrain. We make our marketing decisions based on what is happening in the world grain market, and what we think is going to happen and simply make a judgement at the time. We've tended to market a little bit later because we've paid our storage for the full season. But if the price comes about early and we don't think it's going to hold then we'll sell some into the early markets. It's about making sure you are happy with the price at the time and not over-thinking the markets.
How could you use your YAGRO platform to better inform or make decisions in the future?
The YAGRO platform is laid out in a clear, user-friendly way. For example, I can clearly see where those input reductions have been successful and where they haven’t. This allows me to make decisions year-on-year or adjust as needed. In the fullness of time, it will tell us a full story - like has that cover crop improved the Winter Wheat yield in that field down the line?
The platform joins up the dots. It allows us to say ‘well, we took a yield hit that year on X field – but we know why’. And we can look at the yield we got on other fields this year compared to the field where performance was lower. Being able to clearly connect all the dots is where I find the most value in the platform. You can clearly see what’s working in a user-friendly way.
In days gone by, you could note figures down on the back of an envelope one day, and when you went back two weeks later it didn’t mean anything. Whereas with YAGRO you can go back in and drill down as much as you want to. Some days I need broad information, like comparing crop for crop. Other days I need more nitty-gritty details, like comparing varieties, or comparing fields which had different drilling/cultivation methods. Once you’ve interpreted the results, you can see simply what is working for you.
Plans for the future. Are there any major changes that you're making to either rotations or plans for cultivations etc?
The spring wheat works nicely where we've got black grass on certain soil types. There won't be any great change to that. It's quite a simple decision. That field needs to be a cereal, has it got black grass? No; it's winter wheat. Has it got black grass? Yes; it's spring wheat. That I don't see changing in the short term.
For cultivation methods, we've got a desire to do anything that we can to lessen our impact on the environment. So, countryside stewardship has become a big part of what we're doing. Quite tricky with the root crops, not as tricky with the cereal crops. So, there may be more changes to the cultivation and drilling methods, and the inclusion of the cover crops. Again, the YAGRO platform makes it easier to arrive at an informed decision and see what's working.
The work with Fenland Soil I've been involved in is quite interesting. It shows in terms of reducing your carbon emissions, things like cover cropping and reduced tillage on peat soils have very little impact. The only way you can really reduce your carbon emissions on peat soil is to keep it wet. Because if it's dry, it's emitting carbon. So that then starts to get the grey matter going and you start to think ‘Okay, where can we go with that?’. Because some of our fen soils will then benefit from something entirely different to the heavier soils. Again, monitoring that through the YAGRO platform and seeing what's working and what's not is hugely beneficial.
If you were to give someone three tips for growing a decent spring wheat crop, what would they be?
I wouldn't consider myself an expert on growing spring wheat at all, so that's quite a tricky question! What do I think made ours a successful crop? I think a well-planned approach to cultivation and drilling methods that were thought about a long time in advance. The previous crop came off in the second week of June and from that point onwards, it was all about how we were going to establish that spring wheat crop. We planned cultivations and drilling right down to when we put sheep on the cover crops to best maximise the land. We knew we were going to direct drill, we didn't want the sheep on there in wet conditions, so proper planning was key. I think when you reduce cultivations and go to a more direct approach with your drilling, those sorts of timings become much more critical.
Then being able to analyse your data with the YAGRO platform is also key, because if you manage and plan your cultivations and manage your inputs well, but then don't do anything with the data afterwards, you've kind of fallen off the end of the cliff each year. The planning and the management of inputs is all made irrelevant if you let the data slip.
We would like to thank the team at Westfield Farms for their contributions and congratulate them once again on being awarded the YAGRO Best in Field for Spring Wheat 2022.