Optimising productivity to return the best profit possible is helping one Kent farmer target long-term sustainability. CPM speaks to him to discover how he’s doing this.

“I’m farming just over 100ha, so I want to maximise the return on every single hectare.”

By Melanie Jenkins

Taking up farming full-time after the death of his uncle, Kevin Bell had limited agricultural experience, but he’s now determined to make every hectare as productive and profitable as possible, setting the farm up to be sustainable in the long-term.

Up until four years ago, Kevin had only occasionally helped out on his uncle Tommy Downe’s farm in Charing, Kent, with his main career involving travelling around the world as a hydraulic engineer. But when Tommy became ill, Kevin took on running the farm full-time and has thrown himself into making it as successful as he can. “I’m farming just over 100ha, so I’m aiming to maximise the return on every single hectare.”

Whereas Tommy was a plough and deep cultivation man, one of the main changes Kevin has made is to move to shallow cultivations using a low disturbance sub-soiler and a disc drill. “The farm has clay loam over chalk soils which are in good condition, but we’re aiming to reduce the movement of the soil and improve diesel and time efficiency,” he explains.

However, he hasn’t ruled out using the plough as the min-till approach has had the unexpected consequence of drawing flint to the surface of the field, and after several years, this results in a carpet of stones. “This means there’s a lot of wear and tear on the disc drill whereas there wouldn’t be with a tine drill, but the flint does help with drainage and warms the soil up.”

One of the reasons Kevin continues to move the top 10cm of soil is because organic manures are being reintroduced to the farm. “My uncle used to keep pigs and the manure was used on the arable fields resulting in really good crops, but because the fields are small, it can be a job to achieve big yields due to the large amount of headlands. Although we haven’t used a lot of bagged P and K in the past, we’re now introducing sewage sludge, digestate and paper waste product to help soils and crop health.”

Although the farm does have some grassweed presence, the pressure is low, but Kevin takes a zero tolerance. “My uncle would go around with a sprayer backpack and target every weed but now we’ve moved to a low disturbance system, this has helped even more.”

This season, Kevin has taken a different approach and is mainly growing milling wheat on the farm, be it in a first, second or third position due to having to make changes to his rotation. “We have good outlets for the crop in this part of the UK and the premiums looked good so I’ve planted Crusoe and KWS Extase with the aim of trying to make the milling grade.”

He also grows beans but these haven’t fitted into the rotation this year, and previous attempts to grow oilseed rape resulted in the crop being attacked by just about everything, he explains. “My uncle did have an extra 100ha he rented, but I don’t have this anymore which means our rotation has fallen out of sync.”

Kevin’s agronomist, Neil Harper, has been integral to helping make changes on the farm and provides him with the technical expertise required to aid in making the business profitable. “It’s been a challenge taking on the farm and I very much rely on Neil’s expertise,” says Kevin.

Together they’ve begun to soil test and take tissue samples to build up a clear picture of how the farm is performing and what can be done to achieve more from it. “We’ve introduced GPS and are bringing in variable rate applications,” explains Neil. “Using technology, we want to look at the finer details to achieve incremental gains that’ll allow us to maximise returns.

“Last year was the first time we really analysed the incoming crop which demonstrated various yields that weren’t necessarily high enough, so we want to push these to achieve 9-10t/ha or more. But having assessed where things are, this means we can now push over the next few years to see what we can accomplish,” he says.

In terms of investment, the farm was already kitted out with a full contingent of machinery including a combine. Recently he’s purchased a larger and heavier 12m roller to help achieve better consolidation and reduce reliance on slug pellets. He’s also invested in a new fertiliser spreader with a built-in weigh cell to optimise application. “We don’t want to be putting extra money across fields where it’s not actually required,” he says.

With this in mind, although Kevin applies granular fertiliser, he doesn’t want wastage around the edge of the field and so covers the outer 6m with liquid fertiliser instead. “It’s these little areas of attention to detail that can help us to maximise returns from every inch of ground.”

The pair also want to determine the baseline organic matter levels in the soil to help set a benchmark to work from in future. “My uncle wasn’t into computers, so inputs such as fertiliser weren’t drawn up with digital plans, but we now have everything recorded on spreadsheets to allow us to plan,” says Kevin.

If they can’t make an area of the farm profitable, the next step is to assess the potential for options from the Sustainable Farming Incentive. “We might potentially bring in cover or catch crops with SFI, so this all links together to helping achieve the maximum from each hectare. But we’ll only take land out of production if SFI is cost-effective, and it has to be done in harmony with the business to allow it to be profitable.”

Although Kevin has left his career in engineering behind, this hasn’t stopped him solving problems on the farm using these skills. One instance is where he designed a reinforced steel plate to fit on the outside wheels of his Horsch Sprinter to prevent it always sustaining punctures.

He’s also designed a device to go on the grain bucket to avoid spills and wastage. “When loading from the flat store, because I was a novice, I’d push the bucket into the pile a little too hard causing the grain to spill over the top into the forklift arm, so I created a device a bit like a snow plough so the grain now spills down the sides of the bucket missing the arm entirely.”

Part of Kevin’s drive to learn and explore the most effective management strategies has been by becoming an Agrii iFarm for the first time in 2023. “This is part of the overall aim to improve profitability and leave the farm in the best condition possible for future generations.”

This article was taken from the latest issue of CPM. Read the article in full here.

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