Smart farmers

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How this Yorkshire farm benefited from variable-rate fertiliser

A willingness to make technology work for the economic benefit of the farm business has seen Tamara Hall successfully introduce various precision farming techniques over the past 10 years.

Having taken up the reins at Molescroft Farms, near Beverley, at a relatively young age, managing director Tamara Hall insists any new developments have to be cost-effective and must make a contribution to improving productivity on the 600ha farm.

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Tamara Hall. Photo: Olivia Brabbs

As a result, she has overseen the introduction of yield mapping, variable-rate fertiliser applications and seed rates, but is unable to find a way of justifying the cost of controlled-traffic farming, despite her enthusiasm for it.

“We would have liked to try it, for soil health and timeliness reasons. Unfortunately, RTK [real-time kinematic] is just too expensive for this area.”

Variable seed rates

Otherwise, the use of variable seed rates has been a really significant introduction, she says. “Our soil types are extremely variable and range from heavy clay to black land and lighter soils. Getting the optimum seed rate and good establishment in unpredictable conditions was tricky.”

Having had soil conductivity scanning done and the farm put into zones according to soil type, she has been able to alter seed rates in the different zones and ensure that crops are more competitive – essentially where blackgrass numbers are high.

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Moescroft Grange Farm.

“The conductivity maps showed a correlation between heavy land and blackgrass,” she says. “We have delayed drilling until October to help with weed control, but it is more difficult to sow late on wet, heavy land.”

Using more seed in these areas has been successful, she reports, providing she has been prepared to make big changes to rates, rather than just tweaks.

“We’ve increased seed rates by as much as 50% on our heavy land. Overall, we’re still using the same amount of seed across the farm, but it is being targeted to the right areas to ensure we get good, even establishment.”

Higher seed rates have also helped with the slug threat, especially in wet years, she adds. “And in a dry autumn, it helps get an even crop despite poor seed-to-soil contact.”

Rotational changes

Winter wheat yields tend to average about 10t/ha, but can get up to 12t/ha on better land. The rotation has been extended to 7 years for blackgrass control reasons and includes oilseed rape twice in that time, as well as vining peas, beans and winter barley.

“Second wheat is a struggle,” admits Ms Hall. “So we don’t grow it unless we have to. We will have some spring barley next year, for the first time in 12 years.”

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Young winter wheat plants. Photo: Tim Scrivener

Grass is also coming into the mix, with 4-year leys being grown for a local haylage contractor, so that blackgrass populations can be reduced significantly.

“We needed to get on top of the blackgrass in certain fields. With the herbicides losing their grip, we had to make some more long-term decisions.”

Fertiliser applications

Yield mapping was the first precision farming technique to be used at Molescroft Farms, when a new combine arrived. That was followed by variable P and K applications based on soil maps, which revealed big differences between fields and showed very high indices where farmyard manure had been used in the past.

“Over time, we have been able to correct P and K levels – some areas were too high and there was no correlation with our yield maps. The lowest P and K readings came from the highest-yielding areas.”

Precision techniques at Molescroft Farms

Variable-rate P&K - correct soil P and K level

Variable-rate N - improved OSR yield and cut fertiliser use

 Variable-rate seeding - resulted in more competitive and even crops

Controlled-traffic farming - too expensive

Variable-rate fungicides and plant growth regulators - sprayer needs updating

Following that, an N-Sensor was purchased to fine-tune nitrogen applications and apply the nutrient according to crop requirement, while on the move. As a result, there was a big improvement in oilseed rape performance, with nitrogen rates being almost halved on heavy land in some seasons.

“It varies the nitrogen applied by up to 40%,” reveals Ms Hall. “We wouldn’t be brave enough to do that without the N-Sensor. It has saved us money and given us better yields and oil contents.”

Direct drilling

Her next step is to bring in direct drilling, where appropriate, to bring down establishment costs. For this reason, a drainage programme is ongoing so that soil structure improves, and there are determined efforts to get blackgrass numbers down.

The introduction of grass leys is also expected to improve soil structure and give direct drilling the best chance of success, so the technique will be started after the leys.

Tamara Hall: Preparing for the future

Future-proofing the family business is behind the development of several diversification projects at Molescroft Farms, and the continued investigation of new ones.

High-quality office lets, using redundant farm buildings, are already up and running, making the most of the farm’s close proximity to Beverley and good transport links.

A secure dog walking field was opened earlier in the year, which dog owners are making good use of, while community allotments, an orchard and woodland are also in place for the benefit of local people.

A children’s nursery is in its final stages of construction and will open in September, offering an opportunity for pre-school children to make the most of its farm setting and explore the natural world.

With the focus on making the family business more sustainable, glamping is being researched as the next potential project, as is using the farm as a wedding location.

In the meantime, Ms Hall is keeping a watching brief on drones, to see what they might have to offer to the business. “Patch spraying would be of interest,” she admits.

Another development that has been considered is variable-rate fungicides and plant growth regulators, although the farm’s sprayer would need to be updated before it could become a reality.

“There is a great deal that precision farming technology can do,” she summarises. “But it has to be affordable and bring improvements, as well as being straightforward to use.”