The lowest cost of production for Winter Milling Wheat

A Hinge and Sons Ltd have been highlighted as having the best cost of production of Winter Milling Wheat in our system. We had a chat with James Mair to find out a bit more about how he achieved this and what A Hinge and Sons have planned for the future.

Tell us about yourself:

I'm a Director of the company. Our two families (Hinge & Mair) have been farming together for many years; I came into the business in around 1988. Before that, I spent some time in America on an exchange programme, like so many farmers did back then. That time in the States gave me an excellent grounding to do other things such as setting up a Document Management business which I ran alongside the farm for many years until deciding to sell last year.

Tell us about the farm:A Hinge and Sons have been farming here in Kent since 1942.

The farm is 1,100ha, of which 860ha is combinable crops, and 160ha is fruit orchards. We grow a rotation of Winter Wheat, Oilseed Rape and Spring Barley. Our soil type is quite varied; we range from heavy clay on the Isle of Sheppey marshland to medium clay with flint over shallow chalk. 

Tell us a bit more about your Winter Milling Wheat. Your seed rate is exceptionally low at a rate of 140kg/ha compared to the market median of 209kg/ha:

This was our first time growing KWS Zyatt, which gave us a yield of 9.7t/ha, which wasn't as high as we would have liked, but that very dry Spring period impacted our yield. 

We have an exceptional agronomist in Douglas Inglis having previously worked with Andrew Cullinane. They have provided us with top level advice, having the experience and knowledge of growing KWS Zyatt in this area, whereas it was the first time for us. The seed rate varied from field to field; as I mentioned, our soil type varies enormously across the farm. Weather always plays a factor in seed rate too. We talk about seed rates across the farm and will decide them on the day. The KWS Zyatt went in in perfect conditions; if we had needed a higher seed rate, we would have made that decision there and then.

The majority of the seed comes from T Dennes and Son Ltd, a local supplier whom we also grow seed for under contract. 
Looking at your Analytics platform, your chemical spend is broadly in line with other KWS Zyatt growers, with a reasonably healthy fungicide application, but you are applying a far higher level of Molluscicide that others. Are slugs a big issue where you are? 

This particular crop was drilled after Oilseed Rape, so slugs can be an issue. For the crop's sake, we cannot afford to be complacent. There is no point shutting the door once the horse has bolted, and we apply the same principle -there is no point in applying the slug pellets after they've eaten half the crop. We had dealt with the slugs in good time before we drilled the wheat. 
If you have a crop that has stacks of potential, my view is to invest in a robust fungicide program. This has been proven time and time again. Sometimes cutting cost is a false economy when trying to produce a quality wheat. 

Looking at your fertiliser, you’re applying at a rate that is 30kg/ha higher than the median rate but your costs are still very low, you must be buying it very well?

Due to it being a Milling Wheat, we applied more fertiliser to boost the protein. That decision was based on local knowledge and our views of how we thought the crop would develop. Around 90% of the fertiliser we applied was liquid which, as you said, we did apply at a high rate. 

Last year prices were lower than they had been for a number of years, so I bought a percentage forward. 

You’ve mentioned your Agronomists, who else would you credit with helping you achieve this low cost of production?

The key aspects to this are the team, the timings of application and independent agronomy. 

Independent agronomy is fundamental to the way we work and therefore we’ve had independent agronomy for the past 30 years. I feel it’s important to keep advice and purchasing separate. 

The team here is fantastic; they'll get up at 3 am and go drilling if necessary and put all the hours in that have helped achieve the business's success. The whole team is motivated and wants to yield the results.

We also find that timing is key. When our agronomists make a recommendation, we act on it within 48hrs; you need to be sharp on this kind of thing to succeed.  

With the benefit of hindsight, would you have done anything differently last year?

As an average, our yields across all combinable crops were around 15% down from the previous year. This was mostly due to the weather. If we had drilled at a higher seed rate, we might have had a better yield. If I had had all the information of YAGRO Analytics when we were drilling this year, I think I would have increased my Zyatt and cut back on my Skyfall.

What are your plans for 2021? Will you be doing anything differently?

All our autumn crops went in in good conditions and look promising.

Looking beyond 2021 and in light of the significant changes that agriculture is facing; maintaining profitability is our key goal. We're utilising Analytics to find greater efficiencies. Farming is not an exact science so any help we can have from this will make a difference. We can control the costs but not other factors. We make sure we have the right machinery to do the job properly and we apply the best products available to us at the most cost-effective price.  

On the purchasing side of things, I'm working on trust deals with Hutchinsons and Agrovista, and it is promising to see that YAGRO Analytics backs up the price I am paying. 

Looking beyond 2021 and at farming post BPS what do you have planned?

If I'm honest, we're going to have to learn to farm again. I need to start looking at other crops to add into our rotation. We are now growing Spring peas for the first time in many years. We are also attempting to use cover crops as I think they will have a significant role to play in-between a Winter and Spring cropping. We will establish the cover crops by direct drilling, which will reduce cultivations on some of our soil types. 

Resistant weed grasses such as black grass and ryegrass are becoming more prominent, and resistant ryegrass is probably one of the biggest challenges we have ahead of us. Our cropping rotation is currently dictated by grass weed control which is something we'd like to change. 

We are also looking into prolonging the life of our machinery, we trade in our combines every five years, whereas I know others are holding out to ten years. Once the warranty on our kit has expired, we fix everything ourselves and look more into extending our machines' lifespans. 

We will have the challenge of maintaining profitability whilst keeping our costs under control; this is not something I necessarily have all the answers to yet. 
Are you doing any Countryside Stewardship Schemes?

We've utilised them previously with our last scheme finishing in 2017 as farming the land was more profitable. It is something we will look into again for the future; we always need to adapt and evolve our business to move forward. As we experienced previously, we need to explore the opportunities out there, not everything will work for us and our location, so we will see.

Finally, how did you hear about YAGRO and how valuable do you find it as a service?

We heard about YAGRO through Douglas Inglis, who I have known and worked with for many years. Combining YAGRO's software with our agronomist's local knowledge gives us more insight and information to make the best decisions for our farm. We can track our crops, looking at costs of production and see what is and isn't working. It also highlights which fields are consistently under-performing, which we may then decide to take out of production and set aside for ELMS. 
It has been valuable using YAGRO’s tools, and I am interested to see what else we can achieve going forward.

It is a privilege to work with you all at A Hinge and Sons Ltd.
Congratulations to James and the team on having the most efficient cost of production on Winter Milling Wheat.