Putting research into practice

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The new AHDB Strategic Farm West, launching on 6 June, will put research into practice to help cereals and oilseeds farmers strengthen their businesses.

The Strategic Farm will be hosted by Rob Fox of Squab Hall, on the outskirts of Leamington Spa, Warwickshire.

The launch event on Wednesday 6 June at Leamington Football Club on Harbury Lane, is open to all.

The idea behind AHDB’s arable Strategic Farms is to test findings from research on real farms. And having an AHDB Strategic Farm in the region will be hugely beneficial to local farmers, said Rob.

“Everything we will look at through the Strategic Farm will link back to relevant AHDB research projects. This will give us all a much better understanding of how the outputs from small plot research programmes can be applied in a commercial farm situation – I think that’s a big question farmers want to know. Having a Strategic Farm in the region, somewhere local farmers can visit and see how we’re putting this research into a farming context is going to be massive,” Rob said.

The topics for the next six years of the Strategic Farm will be chosen during the launch meeting in June, making sure the project focuses on the issues most important to farmers in Warwickshire and the west of England.

Richard Meredith, AHDB Knowledge Exchange Manager, said: “The specifics of the try-outs are still open to discussion. Like the Monitor Farm programme, the Strategic Farm is farmer-led and farmer-driven.”

Rob manages Squab Hall, farming 728ha of all-arable land, some owned and rented, including a joint venture with two other farmers. It’s based within a well-diversified business – the Evans family who own the farm have grown various other enterprises over the years, including removals and storage, a business centre, van hire and a document management franchise.

Having spent three years as AHDB’s Monitor Farm host for Leamington Spa, Rob knows the benefits of farmer-to-farmer learning and was keen to continue the process by becoming the next Strategic Farm host.

Rob said: “For me it was the logical thing to do. It takes the Monitor Farm programme a step further, to look at things in more detail. It’s also quite an exciting and nerve-wracking time to be in agriculture, when there are potentially big changes on the way.”

One of the main points of interest for Rob from the Monitor Farm project was soil health, and this is something he will focus on in much more detail as a strategic farmer.

“With the way agriculture is potentially going to have to go once we come out of Europe, I think soil health is going to be increasingly important.”

For a conventional, arable farming system with no livestock, Rob’s heavy, wet clay soils are in a reasonably good condition, especially now that he has begun to reduce the depth of cultivation across the farm.

However, to determine just how good or bad the soils are, Rob needs a much more detailed assessment of the soil and this will be one of the first things the Strategic Farm does.

Richard Meredith added: “Detailed measurements –baselining the relevant information in the try-out fields is crucial to the success of Strategic Farm programme. We need to measure before we can start to manage.”

Another key challenge for Rob is black-grass. Across the business, the black-grass infestation varies from fairly clean fields which can be hand rogued out, right through to fields where wheat and rape have been destroyed because of the weed levels in the crop.

“We need to look at how to run a profitable all-arable rotation in an area where we’ve got bad black-grass,” Rob said.

“We need to learn how to manage black-grass levels better through rotation, technology and more targeted-applications of herbicide. I think that’s where technology will help us, to try and manage the smaller areas where we have got bad black-grass.”

Other challenges for Rob include:
Embracing precision technology in modern arable farming.
Designing a financially viable Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) that benefits the environment and runs alongside the commercial arable unit.
Monitor Farm benefits

Rob hosted a Monitor Farm from 2013 to 2016 and credits the programme with giving huge advantages to his own personal and business development.

“The business is stronger and more resilient now through what we’ve learnt in the Monitor Farm programme. I also think it’s been fantastic in developing myself, professionally and personally and helped me get more involved in the industry.”

Those changes to make his business more resilient included streamlining the machinery policy, expanding the joint venture to include a third farmer, driving down the cost of production and changing the grain marketing strategy.

Thanks to the Monitor Farm programme, Squab Hall Farm is also more resilient to Brexit, says Rob, however hard or soft the process may be.

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