Best in Field Awards: Forage Maize - South Pickenham Estate

South Pickenham Estate has been credited with having the best variable cost of production for Forage Maize at £8.63 per tonne. We spoke to James Brown, the Farm Manager at South Pickenham, to hear how they achieved this and find out more about their future plans. 

Tell us a bit about yourself?

I grew up on a family farm on the Isle of Wight. After I left school, I attended Sparsholt College in Winchester before attending Harper Adams University. After graduating, I started working on a farm near Cirencester, where I was a sprayer operator, and from there, I worked my way up to be here as Farm Manager at South Pickenham. 

Tell us a bit about the farm.

South Pickenham is a 7,500-acre estate in Norfolk. We let out 1,500 acres to a vegetable grower who grows potatoes, carrots, parsnips and onions. 
We focus primarily on combinables; we run three rotations based on soil type; the combination of these are based around sugarbeet, Maize, winter wheat, beans, winter barley and winter oilseed rape. 
We also have 600 head of cattle, 220 of which are our breeding cows which help graze the water meadows on the estate.
Our soil is sand to sandy loam on the southern part of the estate with a sandy loam to clay sandy loam on the north end of the estate. 
Duncan More is the Estate Manager here at South Pickenham, and I work closely with him. We’re a team of 3 on the arable side of the business. 

The Farm

  • 7,500 acres
  • Soil ranges from sandy loam to clay loam
  • Three rotations across the farm (based on soil type)
  • 600 head of cattle
  • Team of 3 on the arable side of the busi

Tell us a bit more about your Forage Maize in general.

We’ve been growing Forage Maize for four years now, and we grow it for a local AD plant just up the road in Swaffham. It does well for us, and last year we had an average yield of 39.7t/ha. Last year we grew three varieties which were Agriaxx, Smoothi CS and Spyci CS.

Your seed cost is very low, do you home save seed?

No, we aren’t home saving. Our seed always comes from Green Farm Seeds, so I’m glad to see that Mark has been giving us such a good deal on our seed! 

Your chemical and fertiliser rates are generally very low, with a couple of higher applications in specific fields of nitrogen and also a high dose of Bromoxynil in another. How do you manage application rates? 

We don’t apply any Farm Yard Manure or Digestate ahead of planting, and Maize is a hungry crop, so we listen to our agronomist and give the Maize what we feel its needs at the time. 
Yes, broadleaf weeds are generally a problem here on the farm. When we applied our Bromoxynil, we did so at a rate we saw fit for what the field needed. 

In 2020 you grew three different varieties of Forage Maize; Agriaxx, Smoothi CS and Spyci CS; what was the decision making behind using these varieties? 

We chose these three varieties as they work well in combination for us. They all matured at slightly different times, which enabled us to space out our harvesting slightly. We then chose which variety to grow in a particular field based on that fields soil type. A later maturing variety we’d put on the lighter land as it allows us to harvest it later, and the earlier maturing varieties, we would traditionally put on the heavier bodied soils so that we’re not harvesting them too late when the conditions have turned.

Forage Maize Statistics

  • Yield: 39.7t/ha
  • Variable Cost of Production: £8.63/t
  • Varieties: Agriaxx, Smoothi CS, Spyci CS

Your costs, in general, are all very low, despite some of your application rates being higher. So you must be buying well?

All of our fertiliser is bought with YARA, and our chemical comes from Frontier through Anglia Farmers.

Who does your agronomy on-farm?

Most of the agronomy is done by our agronomist Jeremy Town who works for Frontier. I’m also BASIS trained, so I help on the agronomy side of things too.  

Who do you credit with helping you achieve this award?

Well, I suppose it has to be Jeremy! But it is always a team effort, and everyone has played their part.  

Which varieties will you be sticking with next year? 

This year we’ll only be continuing with Smoothi but we are also growing two new varieties called Duxxbury, which matures slightly earlier than Smoothi and Picker, which matures even earlier. We chose Picker due to the wetter autumn last year, which made harvesting conditions challenging, so we have tried to bring it all further forward this year, so hopefully, it’ll make things easier!   

"Well, that is the million-dollar question. For us it will be seeing where we can make up for those shortfalls through savings and opportunities within our business."

Do you have any ELMS or Stewardship Schemes in place?

Yes, we’re currently in our fourth year of being in a Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship Scheme, which runs to the end of December next year. The main parts of the scheme are our 6m margins of Ab9 wild bird mixes, Ab8 wildflower mixes, and we also have over winter stubble.
Looking into the future, it’ll be interesting to see what happens with ELMS, and then we’ll decide which way we want to head forwards with that. 

Finally, what are your plans for the future and moving away from BPS? 

Well, that is the million-dollar question! For us, it will be seeing where we can make up for those shortfalls through savings and opportunities within our business.
It will also be dependent on what the Government do, what schemes they decide to introduce and how we’ll actually be paid, be that farming or conservation. The full announcements are yet to be made, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens and which direction things will go in, so all those factors will play a big part in how we adapt.

Congratulations to James Brown and the team at South Pickenham Estate Co. for having the best variable cost of production for Forage Maize in 2020!

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