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Norfolk Business Awards 2019

Three key lessons from three years of the Dereham Monitor Farm project

PUBLISHED: 13:07 06 March 2019 | UPDATED: 08:21 07 March 2019

Simon Brock, farm manager at Swanton Morley Farms. Picture: Ian Burt

Simon Brock, farm manager at Swanton Morley Farms. Picture: Ian Burt

The value of benchmarking, cover crops and reduced cultivation were among the key lessons learned during a three-year knowledge-sharing project at a Norfolk farm.

Cultivation on the AHDB Dereham Monitor Farm, 2016. Picture: Simon BrockCultivation on the AHDB Dereham Monitor Farm, 2016. Picture: Simon Brock

The Dereham Monitor Farm programme involved activities, debates, conferences and field tours hosted by Swanton Morley Farms, based at Hoe Hall, near Dereham, with expert insights shared with neighbouring farmers.

The project, run by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), concluded this week with a final review meeting which brought more than 50 farmers and farm advisers to Beetley village hall.

They heard the project had addressed a wide range of topics including crop establishment, cost analysis, reaching yield potential, enhancing soil health, efficient use of fungicides and micro-nutrients, labour and machinery costs, and optimum tyre pressures for controlled traffic farming.

Farm manager Simon Brock said one of the most valuable exercises was benchmarking – comparing his costs against similar businesses – which revealed his farm had better-than-average arable machinery costs per hectare, but was higher than average for power and labour. He said a natural staffing change at the farm had corrected this.

More than 50 farmers and farm advisors gathered for the final meeting in the AHDB's three-year Dereham Monitor Farm project. Picture: Chris HillMore than 50 farmers and farm advisors gathered for the final meeting in the AHDB's three-year Dereham Monitor Farm project. Picture: Chris Hill

“One of my big loves was the benchmarking, which I thought was extremely useful,” he said. “It was looking at how my costs compared to everyone else’s. It showed I had got a problem with labour, but we had a guy coming up to retirement and we were able to replace him with a student. It has lowered our costs and given a student the opportunity to learn first-hand.”

Reduced cultivations for the benefit of soil health was another focus of the Monitor Farm project. Mr Brock said: “There are just so many ways of looking at it. I would love to move to zero tillage. It is something we have been looking at for years, but the trouble with all this the minute you look at changing something or try looking at a new type of drill, the bill starts at about £30,000, so you see costs go out of the window as well.

“So that’s a subject that will keep on going and will continually evolve.”

Mr Brock said his third key lesson learned during the three-year project was the value of using cover crops to improve soil health and retain nutrients during the winter months.

An open day at the AHDB Dereham Monitor Farm in June 2017. Picture: Ian BurtAn open day at the AHDB Dereham Monitor Farm in June 2017. Picture: Ian Burt

“I never used to use cover crops at all,” he said. “I am not completely there yet, I have got lots to learn about using them and destroying them so you can get another crop in, which can be quite a challenge on the heavier land. But it is an important factor of soil health which goes hand in hand with reduced cultivation.”

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Reflecting on his three years as a Monitor Farmer, Mr Brock added: “It has been great fun, and I have really enjoyed meeting a lot of different people. I have learned a lot, but there is still much to learn.

“It is the interaction that really makes it work. It is people joining in and making me question what I am doing – that is what makes it so valuable.”

As the meeting closed, Teresa Meadows, knowledge exchange manager for the AHDB’s cereals and oilseeds division in East Anglia, praised Mr Brock’s enthusiasm and attention to detail, and thanked the network of growers and industry representatives who had contributed to the project.

“That group dynamic has always been fun and you have always engaged so thank you all for doing it,” she said.

The AHDB says a new East Anglian Monitor Farm is due to be launched at the end of this month.

WHAT OTHER FARMERS LEARNED

In a feedback survey, visiting farmers were asked what changes they had made as a result of attending the Monitor Farm meetings. Their answers included:

• Involve staff more

• Use of cover crops, change in cultivation practice

• Better machinery costings

• Increase attention to detail on variable costs

• Being braver about discussing big farm system changes

• Calculate profitability

• Challenge myself to reduce fixed costs

• Introducing cover crops

• Invest in soil biology / soil health

When asked about their main take-home messages from this programme, they answered:

• Costs, costs, costs

• Don’t isolate yourself, share knowledge

• Attending meetings is a useful aid to business decisions

• Monitor and reduce costs

• To be open minded

• “Time to retire!”

• Need for more detail; resilience for the future

• Embrace change

• Collaboration

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