When Staffs grower and The Farming Forum founder Clive Bailye took on an on-farm trials challenge, he got a result he didn’t expect. CPM visits to get an insight into the farm behind the forum.
I’m always deeply sceptical of these ‘on-farm’ claims.
By Tom Allen-Stevens
“The interesting thing about zero till and conservation agriculture is that farmers understand it a lot less than non-farmers.”
You can tell from the look on Staffs grower Clive Bailye’s face that the statement isn’t supposed to be an insult, nor inflammatory, nor even self-deprecating. It’s probably more of a challenge.
“Why? Because farmers put barriers in the way, and are reluctant to admit that what they’re doing may be wrong. A lot of it sits in the head, and often it takes someone looking objectively at what you’re doing to point out it could be done better,” he continues.
Perhaps that’s the philosophy that’s made The Farming Forum (TFF – www.thefarmingforum.co.uk) reputedly the most used agricultural website in the world. Founded by Clive Bailye around six years ago, it now has 23,000 members, while there are 150,000-200,000 unique visitors to the site, downloading 8M pages, every month. Every day another 100,000 words are added to the 2M posts that sit there, and every single one of the 80,000 topics these encompass relate to farming.
At the very least, it’s a philosophy that drives him to innovate on his own farm – TWB Farms extends to around 800ha plus a large-scale contract farming operation, based at Burntwood, near the M6 toll road. “When I came back to the family farm 20 years ago, after leaving college, it was a 120ha ex-dairy farm, but I had little interest in livestock,” recalls Clive Bailye.
“We developed the arable side, buying land and taking on tenancies, and very quickly dropped the plough and power-harrow based system for the flexibility and speed offered by a min-till Simba Solo and Väderstad approach.”
The change allowed the farming operation to expand, but to Clive Bailye it was a stepping stone to a full zero-till approach. “As we got bigger, we were simply buying bigger tractors. We were cultivating as deep as the plough and it wasn’t helping the grassweed situation.
“But I knew a move to zero till wasn’t just about buying different kit – it’s a whole system approach, taking in both the rotation and the agronomy. We had to learn to farm all over again.”
He found most of the exchange of knowledge on no-till systems was taking place overseas. “There was no conversation over here because there was no forum. So I set up directdriller.co.uk. It was really just a vehicle so I could find out how to successfully adopt direct drilling myself.”
The site quickly outgrew its name, and became a general farming forum. “We relaunched on Valentine’s Day 2012 as The Farming Forum. I think farmers like it because it’s independent, direct and true, with very light-touch moderation. There’s a perception that FWi is beholden to its advertisers, that they never really wanted a free-speaking forum – it can create an awkward situation if someone brings to an internet forum a grievance on a large agricultural company.”
And it’s this philosophy to challenge that drew him to BASF’s claims for Adexar. “There’s always quite a healthy debate on TFF about SDHI fungicides. Much of it is quite unscientific, and I felt no farmer had really quantified the benefits of the chemistry. So I was intrigued at the £20/ha benefit claim BASF made for Adexar.”
Clive Bailye has a fair bit of experience with on-farm trials, having done several split-field experiments on trace elements. The farm also incorporates a GTAS-accredited commercial grain store, with a weighbridge and grain-testing facilities.
“I’m always deeply sceptical of these ‘on-farm’ claims – I feel that if the company doesn’t get the answer it wants, it buries the results. I not only have the facilities to put the product to the test, but access to a social media channel to ensure there’s honesty built in.”
His plan was to pitch an Adexar-based programme against one based on Aviator. The third system on trial would be his own on-farm programme, put together by independent agronomist Richard Hammond (see panel on pxx).
“The field we chose has hosted on-farm trials before – the soil type is consistent and we’ve years of yield-map data for it. It’s a fairly square 25ha, so splits nicely into three 4ha blocks away from the headland, with each block being three tramlines wide. It’s also close to the grain store.
“When I told BASF about my plans, I thought they’d try to bury it, but they actually took the opposite approach. I said I’d be publishing my plans and the results on TFF, but they were confident – it seemed to me to be a massive gamble on their part.”
The wheat crop followed a crop of peaola – something of an innovation in itself. “It’s an idea from Canada – a crop of spring peas with a companion crop of spring oilseed rape. The OSR acts like garden canes and keeps the peas standing, then you separate the two after harvest. The peas yield around 4-4.4t/ha – about 10% more than I used to get, and there’s the added bonus of about 1-1.25t/ha of OSR. The challenge is to get the two crops to ripen together.”
The trial field was drilled direct with the farm’s John Deere 750A drill on 11 Oct into Skyfall wheat – undressed, farm-saved seed with no autumn herbicide applied. “Skyfall’s a fairly clean variety, so not the biggest test for the chemistry. But the whole point was that this should be a relevant, on-farm situation,” notes Clive Bailye.
“I posted the initial thread on TFF and followed it up with updates as I made the applications, including prices. Most people reckoned our own programme would win because it has more flexibility. The Adexar programme worked out the most expensive. As harvest neared, you really couldn’t tell the difference, and I thought the Adexar-treated area would lose as it had the highest cost.”
But the results over the weighbridge were indisputable – the Adexar-based programme beat Aviator by 0.43t/ha or £57/ha. It also yielded a shade above the farm’s own programme, with the highest margin over input costs. “We did see a bit of protein dilution, but all samples were above 13% with a specific weight of 76-77kg/hl,” he reports.
“When I revealed the results on TFF, they were met with a fair amount of surprise, but no one was more surprised than me. I’m someone who’s committed to not spending more on a crop than is necessary for a decent return. But even with commodity prices where they are and with the inclination to pull on the reins, yield is still king and it pays to invest.”
Across the rest of the farm, seven to eight years of zero till and spring cropping is now bringing benefits, says Clive Bailye. “We’re a light land farm, and spring crops used to be a disaster due to lack of moisture. Now, direct-drilled into cover crops, there’s plenty of moisture to give them a good start, and we’ve pretty much eradicated grassweeds.”
There’s no set rotation, but 40% of the farm is now spring cropped, with first wheats taking half the area and autumn OSR down to just 10%. Millet, linseed and oats are among the spring crops sown, and frequently these are included in the cover crops, which include phacelia, fodder radish, turnip radish and sunflowers. These are mob-grazed with a flock of 1500 sheep, bought in Nov and sold into the spring market. Wheat yields have lifted around 1t/ha to around 8.5-9t/ha as a result.
“We’ve cut our fuel usage from 40-50 l/ha to just 3-4 l/ha. We’ve even picked up a soil management award. But it’s all really come from ideas I’ve picked up and shared.”
He now sees TFF heading in an international direction. “I’m very positive about the future of farming – I think Brexit will challenge farmers to look further afield for ideas and I don’t think subsidies do farming any favours.
“I’m quite excited about how technology on farm is getting smaller, more precise or even hovering above our fields – ten years from now we’ll look back on the age of the Quadtrac and laugh. The technology of the future of farming already exists and we just need to challenge our preconceptions so it can be pulled together. Sometimes it’s good to roll the dice and see what happens.”
Clive Bailye’s on-farm fungicide trial
A fresh approach ensures maximum benefit from new technology
What you get at TWB Farms is a different approach to arable farming, reckons local BASF agronomy manager Robin Rose. “Clive Bailye is a complete breath of fresh air,” he says.
“He’s changed the farm from a small dairy unit to a large contract farming operation, but operations are carried out with the minimum amount of machinery. This has been achieved through focusing on the soils with a high attention to detail. Clive describes his farming style as neither a complete “bag-and-bottle farmer” nor fully organic, but is prepared to look carefully at any farming progression that’ll benefit the business.”
He’s also prepared to challenge what’s accepted as standard practice. “It’s easy to carry on doing what you’re doing. Clive is open to change. He’s also not afraid to take on a challenge,” continues Robin Rose.
The challenge in this case was to put the £20/ha benefit claimed for Adexar to the test. “BASF was more than happy to support Clive in his trials, and prepared to stand by the benefit that we’ve seen come through in countless trials. But I have to admit it the trial had set us a challenge – it was carried out in the full glare of scrutiny from TFF members, none of whom thought the BASF programme would win.”
But Clive Bailye’s approach is a textbook way for any grower to get maximum benefit from on-farm trials, he says. “You have to be prepared to take on a challenge, and to do so in a meticulous and detailed way – the ability to measure results accurately is crucial.
“Make sure you choose a decent, consistent field, and each plot should be at least 1ha. Carry out operations methodically, but it should reflect your own on-farm practice to give you a true picture of how different systems compare. Once you get the results, you should be willing to accept what they tell you.”
Robin Rose reckons there’s a considerable benefit to be had for any business prepared to put a bit of time and effort into on-farm trials. “We all tend to be taken in by the marketing, and in arable farming it’s easy just to go along with whatever recommendation your agronomist gives. But to demonstrate it yourself is a far more powerful way to get the best out a new product and to find how new technology can fit into your business.”
How to be an on-farm innovator – Clive Bailye’s top tips
- Don’t be afraid of failure. It pushes you onto the right path – a lot of things tried on TFF haven’t worked, but these have helped in understanding what does.
- Try it on the cheap. When you try something new, there’s a fair chance of failure, so don’t over-reach yourself – TFF cost £100 to get off the ground.
- Don’t put the cart before the horse. Making money from a new venture or idea is important, but what’s crucial before you monetise it is that the idea actually works. TFF focused on generating traffic and building membership, rather than building a beautiful website, for example.
- Share what you know. If you share information, more often than not, you’ll receive back far more knowledge from others than you shared in the first place. Some of the best tips ever received have come through this route.
- Be scientific, but remain practical. When trying something new, you need to assess and measure it properly, but it should be as real as possible. So on-farm trials should be field size and use farm equipment, but should always be treated and assessed accurately so the results are robust.
- Open yourself to challenge. Don’t be afraid of scrutiny. It may expose you to criticism, but it’s an opportunity to learn from others – a far bigger mistake is to think you know it all.
Farmers are constantly innovating to improve their businesses, which is why BASF is committed to investing 10% of its sales revenues
into R&D to deliver new technologies for farming. BASF’s new innovations include pioneering agricultural chemistry, as well as Innovations Beyond Crop Protection like biologicals, bacteria, soil and water management and renewable technologies. Our future is firmly focused on delivering towards farming’s future.’