Fertiliser and other input costs have gone through the roof in recent years – so how can growers tackle this without affecting productivity? Dan Belcher, who farms at March House Farm, Great Dalby has found a way to make significant savings, by: Measuring and managing crop requirements more effectively, making better use of animal outputs like farmyard manure (FYM), and using grass leys to tackle high weed burdens.
“It is about taking a whole farm approach,” he says. “We took on a lot of land two years ago which was full of blackgrass and farmed out. Through planting grass leys and grazing livestock on the worst land, we have cut the weed burden by 70-80%. Next spring, we will see how, after three years in a grass ley, it looks when planted with spring beans.”
It is about taking a whole farm approach. We took on a lot of land two years ago which was full of blackgrass and farmed out.Dan Belcher
Mr Belcher has also experimented with grazing sheep on 40ha of winter wheat. “We put them on in late January,” he explains. “The grazing got rid of any diseased leaves, stimulated root establishment and produced fresh disease-free tillers in the spring. It is a fine balance not to over-graze – there is an art to it. But it has cut our fungicide bills by three-quarters and reduced our herbicide programme by a quarter. “There has been no detriment to yield and we’ve seen far less disease,” he adds.
The farm works on a four-crop rotation of winter wheat followed by winter barley, a diverse cover crop – grazed over winter – and finally, spring beans. As well as single winter wheat varieties, he grows a four-way wheat blend to improve plant health. “Using this blend allows us to cut fungicides by three-quarters compared with a single variety, with no detriment to yield,” he says. “If it keeps delivering the goods, we will be using it exclusively in the next two to three years.”
Healthy soil and healthy seed require less fertiliser
Mr Belcher’s approach to fungicides is to watch the crop and the season rather than applying at a particular growth stage. “This year was so dry that there was no disease burden on any of the crops. We are mindful of what is going on around us.” He uses all farm-saved seed, cleaning but not dressing it. “I don’t feel dressing is required if the soil is in good enough condition and you have a healthy seed; the plant gets away. “This approach more than halves our seed costs,” he adds.
For establishment, he adopts a low or min till approach using a John Deere 750A disc drill and a Horsch Sprinter tine drill. “This delivers fuel savings of about one-third compared with more intensive cultivations.”
More significant savings come from using fertiliser in a more targeted way, explains Mr Belcher. “We use N min [soil nitrogen] testing to discover the residual nitrogen in the ground and develop a fertiliser plan based on this and plant trace element testing. We do a lot of tissue testing and sap analysis through the growing season and base fertiliser applications on what the plant requires to keep it healthy.”
He applies 110kg N/ha to wheat and barley; previously he applied 180-200kg/ha. “For our first dressing in March we put on solid urea with sulphur. The second dressing in mid-April is 40kg of a sulphur N liquid product, Nitroflo 24N + 7.5% SO3 from Omex, followed by two foliar applications of nitrogen – 10kg each, also adding trace elements, molasses and liquid carbon.”
Part of the N budget comes from FYM, which is analysed to determine nutritional content. Mr Belcher has invested in a Bunning spreader, with discs and weigh cells enabling spreading of FYM at a constant rate over 24m, using it as a top dressing in the spring. It equates to 10kg N/ha. “With our approach to crop nutrition we have cut our total fertiliser spend by 40%. Looking longer term, the FYM is improving soil organic matter and building fertility.”
With our approach to crop nutrition we have cut our total fertiliser spend by 40%. Looking longer term, the FYM is improving soil organic matter and building fertility.Dan Belcher
Saving with precision
Precision farming methods also form part of the arable system and help to identify savings, says Mr Belcher. “We use tractors which have GPS and the John Deere 732 sprayer has section control. We don’t do controlled traffic farming but try to run only on the tramlines where we can. We use John Deere’s GreenStar management system and John Deere Link. We can get information on diesel consumption and yields and make about a 10% saving through using this technology.” Average yields for the farm are: Wheat 8.8t/ha, barley 7.9t/ha, and spring beans 4.4t/ha.
Looking at labour costs, Mr Belcher is happy with his team. “We have a great team on the farm who are reliable and hard-working. Being a mixed farm, we don’t need to worry about seasonal labour. We can deploy people in the arable or livestock enterprises depending on the time of year, making more efficient use of labour.”
The courtyard with farm shop
Well sorted: the farm shop with bakery, butcher and café
The butcher sells beef and lamb raised on the farm
However, finding good, reliable labour can be an issue in the farm’s diversification projects – about 30 staff are employed for the farm shop, butchery and bakery.
The butchery started in 2000, with the farm selling beef and lamb from homebred livestock at farmers’ markets in London. In 2017, the family opened a farm shop, adding a café which later closed during Covid and wasn’t reopened. However, the farm shop has expanded. Mr Belcher added a bakery, which makes pork pies, meat pies, and sausage rolls for sale in both the farm shop and local village shops.
Making sales with diversity
Although the diversification has retained 60% of the business it gained during Covid, recent increases in electricity prices have hit the butchery particularly hard, says Mr Belcher. “Refrigeration uses the most power and we are looking to invest in more solar power to keep the electricity bills sensible. We already have a small solar project on the shed roofs – but we need to increase it by five times to mitigate the bill.” A biomass boiler heats the grain drying floors when needed and the farmhouse and farm shop.
Before making any further changes, Mr Belcher wants to assess how the new cost-saving measures across the farm and diversification project are working. “We’ve made quite a lot of changes over the past three years,” he says. “I want to see the true results of using the new system. Three years ago, we decided the conventional approach wasn’t working, which led us to where we are now.”
However, he does have his eye on some machinery changes. “A John Deere 6215 R tractor is due to be delivered by Christmas. We change the telehandler every two years as it does 3,000 hrs/year. And as we are doing more foliar fertiliser applications, when we come to swap the sprayer, we’ll be looking for something with a little more capacity.”
While the higher fertiliser, fuel and electricity bills have come as an unwelcome shock to Mr Belcher, the cost cutting measures he has already been establishing will hopefully mitigate the worst of them. “We are playing the long game, putting in place a system that will still work well in 30 years, not just three.”
Farm facts March House Farm
- Location: March House Farm, Great Dalby, Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire
- 120ha land owned
- Heavy clay soils
- Average rainfall: 720mm
- 840ha tenanted including 460ha arable and the remainder, grassland
Dan Belcher farms with brother Tom
- Staff include an arable foreman and a shepherd
- Livestock: 2,800 breeding sheep – North Country Mules and Romneys
- Viehbestand: 2800 Zuchtschafe – North Country Mules und Romneys
- 180 Aberdeen Angus and Shorthorn suckler cows with followers
- 50 Breeding sows
- Diversification – Farm shop, butchery and bakery
- Three main tractors – John Deere 6195 R, 6150 R and Fendt720.
- Lease 300hp tractor during harvest
- John Deere T 560 combine 22ft cut
- Vaderstad Rexius twin cultivator
- John Deere 750A disc drill
- Horsch Sprinter tine drill
- Kuhn 40.1 fertiliser spreader
- Bunning 150 muck spreader
- John Deere 732 sprayer 24m
- JCB 542 70 telehandler