Best In Field Awards: Winter Beans - Cranborne Farms

Environmentally focused farming tops Winter Bean production

From left to right: Lee Etherington, Tom Dart, Micky Luckham

Cranborne Farms have been credited with having the lowest cost of production for Winter Beans for Harvest 2021 at £36 per tonne. We spoke to Cranborne Farm Manger - Tom Dart to find out how the farm operate and what has led to this incredibly low production cost.  

Tom, tell us a little bit about yourself and Cranborne Farms.

I studied Agriculture and Land Management the Royal Agricultural College joining Agrii when I graduated. I qualified as an Agronomist and worked there for 6 years. In that role I felt I had the responsibility for the programs that were applied but not the control of applying them. That led me to transition to farming and I moved to a mixed farming enterprise in north Devon before arriving at Cranborne last February in the midst of lockdown with winter crops already well established. 

Cranborne Farms is made up of 800ha of arable, 300ha grassland and a further 100ha of Stewardship land. We are approximately 80% chalk downland and 20% loamy clay. I’m responsible for the in-hand farming and we have a partnership arrangement on a herd of beef cattle with another party.  

We are a team of 3 on the farm with an additional three at harvest. I’ve got fantastic support from Lee Etherington and Michael Luckham. Lee being the main sprayer operator and Michael pulls the drill. We tend to offer the combine driving to a student in harvest, it’s a great role and opportunity to be able to offer someone starting out in the industry.  

Harvesting Beans at Cranborne Farms.

Cranborne Farms are part of the Martin Down Farmer Cluster, which has a massive bearing on how we farm and how we go about our cropping. There are species on the farm we are really trying to promote, Grey Partridge, Turtle Doves and wildflowers amongst others. The way we lay out our cropping is all done to encourage those species to thrive here. We also actively look to avoid using insecticides where possible.  

Farming is high risk, investing in the farm and then trading commodities. We are looking closely at the returns we are getting on for example, fungicides. We look at the money we spend on that and see if it is adding value or if there are cultural control methods we can incorporate to get the same return on investment. We look at the science behind why you would use a product and if there isn’t enough risk to the crop to justify using a product we don’t use it. 

We are seeing a lot of our top performing farms have BASIS qualified farm mangers. Do you think that gives you an advantage? 

I’m lucky with my experience in having been an agronomist, and the qualifications I got from that Advance Basis and Facts gives me a strong knowledge of the products we use. Advance BASIS has given me the understanding why you might have a problem and the risks associated with that problem, which can save us from applying a product as an insurance policy.  

You’ve mentioned commodities markets – how do you market your grain?  

Traditionally all through traders. We’re looking to do more direct sales. This year we’ve sold 30% of our wheat direct to a dairy farm in Devon. We use a local haulier and the dairy take two loads a month. It give us and the dairy better value for money. We’re lucky to have the storage to sell when we need to.  

We’re starting to diversifying away from traditional commodities markets in a few different ways. We have a couple of hectares of heritage wheat which will be milled locally and marketed locally to artisan bakers. Then we have 67ha of Maple Peas that go direct to the pigeon market and also 20ha of naked oats growing with flamingo peas for wasabi pea. They will then be harvested at the same time and split out, with the peas exported to Japan for the snack market and the oats going to bird seed mixes via Cope Seeds.  

Cranborne Farms, 80% chalk downland and 20% loamy clay in the heart of Dorset.

Looking at your beans, you’ve not grown for a few years. What led to bringing them back into the rotation.  

We want 50% of our cropping in the autumn and 50% in the spring for conservation reasons as well as to spread the workload. The returns on a feed barley weren’t stacking up so rather than go with a second wheat, beans were introduced.  

Everything you’ve applied to the beans looks incredibly low. You spent less than £65 per hectare on chemicals. What led to the low input costs?  

It went in well. Just as I took on the role as Farm Manager in February we had a couple of weeks of really cold weather which really nailed the beans. With that and the dry March they didn’t look like they were going to meet the potential we had budgeted for, limiting what we wanted to invest into them. When it warmed up and they got going, they flowered well and the pod sets were fantastic.  

Chocolate spot is the issue many growers struggle with as a disease. We have a fantastic sprayer operator here, whatever day it is, sprays get done at a timely fashion with an incredible level of detail.  We were keeping an eye on weather conditions that would lead to Chocolate Spot and held back from spraying for that and fortunately never needed to. There is an element of risk taken too, but it paid off in this instance. We’ve just invested in a Metos weather system to help with planning around the weather which should help us target our use of active ingredients more, again using data to make those decisions.  

Your fungicide spend is at £4 per hectare on beans. Any insights on how you got that so low?  

An element of risk. As a farmer, its my crop, my risk my responsibility.  Having taken that agronomy decision in house suits us in that we have complete control of our approach to risk.  

Are you growing beans this year?  

Funnily enough, no! They didn’t fit in with our rotation plans this year. Next year they’ll be back in.  

You mentioned your Matos system and you are using our systems, have you got any other new tech you are adopting?  

We’ve just committed to a new direct drill – we were effectively strip tilling before with the Claydon and just bought a new Horizon Agri Direct Drill. The soil is in a condition where we believe we can move to a true direct drill system.  

Plans for this year? How is 2022 harvest looking so far?  

We are all liquid-based fertiliser, so we were only able to buy what we can fit in the tanks. We got those filled up back in late august. We’re currently looking to see what to do with the remainder we will need. All the spring barley going in and the spring naked oats have all their nitrogen in the seed bed already so we’re looking to use variable rate primarily on the Winter Wheat and Winter Barley. 

Looking at this year, you’ve got Winter Wheat and Winter Barley in the ground so far.  

Yes, the rest is currently in cover crop (baring what is in overwinter stubble) being grazed by sheep and cattle. We have leafy turnip, linseed, vetch, phacelia, fodder radish and berseem clover in the mix for grazing and the soil conditioner is similar but without the turnip.  

Cover crops being put to good use at Cranborne Farms.

With fertiliser and agri-chemistry prices increasing – are you doing anything differently to combat the prices?  

We’re had some frosts so rolled 50ha cover crops, which has had mixed results. Overall where we would have needed 4.5L of glyphosate to kill that off we should then need 2.5L –  so there will be some savings on that, not necessarily financially but less active ingredients used. Where we’ve had the ground grazed we’ll be still needing to spray off a part of that before drilling, but far less than without the cattle.  

With the use of cover crops and direct drilling, would you class yourself as a “regen farmer”?   

Regen is a broad team – for us it's an approach to farming which seeks to improve soil quality and enhance biodiversity through reductions in land tillage and use of chemicals, the introduction of livestock, and other measures.  

We are implementing new technologies rather than relying on something that has traditionally come out of a can or fertiliser sack. We have plans to put in an area of agroforestry. As we get more on board with our grazing partners (introduced last year), we have plans for more mob grazing plots that will be grazed with cattle and then re-enter the cropping rotation. It goes back to a more traditional rotation but using modern technologies to make sure it is done as efficiently as possible.  

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