TAKING ON extra land can be a challenge – but when you are almost tripling your arable area – it can be a logistical and management nightmare.
The extra land is much more demanding than your own, because usually there are no permanent staff and cropping routines may be different.
So, it’s not surprising that time is one of Andrew Aitken’s most limiting resources at Percival Farm, Buckhaven, near Kircaldy, on the Fife coast. All the more so since the 230 ha of heavy ground added to his family’s established 130 ha of cropping on a five-year contract in 2015 can be unforgiving if not managed to a tight schedule.
“Timeliness is more critical than ever for us these days,” insisted Andrew, who is responsible for the arable side of the third generation family tenancy while his brother, John manages the suckler beef business.
“The new ground at Newton Farm, in particular, has to be drilled-up by the end of the second week in October and the combination of its clay content and the amount of rain we get, means that spray days are almost always limited. The difference between success and failure can often be just a few hours.
“Because we do all the work ourselves, John and I rely heavily on the strong partnerships we have with our landlord, Wemyss Estates, key suppliers and contractors, like Agrii, machinery specialists like Sellars, good neighbours like the Lairds and, above all, Agrii agronomist, Donald Hay.
“He knows our farm as well as we do and we work closely together in planning our cropping, selecting varieties and managing them throughout the season. As well as making sure we have the right inputs precisely when we need them, he is our link with the dependable mobile seed processing and contract spraying services we get from Agrii.
"Increasingly, he’s helping us build extra precision into our liming, fertilisation and sowing based on SoilQuest mapping.
To make the most of its potential, together they are progressively replacing the extra acres' long-standing continuous wheat-based regime with the successful five-year winter crop rotation they’ve developed in their main tenanted holding.
While continuous wheat worked well at Newton Farm in the past, growing problems were being encountered with root and stem-based diseases before they took the land on. At the same time, reliably sowing the best part of 300 ha of winter wheat within a narrow drilling window would have been impossible with their preferred plough-based establishment regime.
“We have to have a rotation that spreads our autumn workload, in particular,” Andrew Aitken explained. “We used to grow a lot of spring barley. Much of our land is well-suited to it and we’re barely half a mile from the nearest distillery.
"But when we got just £75 per tonne for our quality malting crop in 2007, we decided we’d never again leave ourselves so exposed to this market. Instead, we’ve developed winter oats as a really good alternative. Most of our crop earned £130 per tonne last year through the GrainCo pool and it’s a true wheat break.
“So now we have a winter rape/winter wheat/winter oats/winter wheat/winter barley rotation that gives us two first wheats but only one oilseed rape every five years," he pointed out.
"This is a great balance for both our management and marketing. It also provides barley straw for the beef and the opportunity to get a good application of FYM onto around 10 ha of stubbles every year. And it offers a sequence of sowing from rape in late-August through barley and oats to wheat in early October that we can cope with.
“Moving to minimum tillage would certainly save on precious autumn time,” said Mr Hay. “But any such savings would be more than outweighed by the extra crop protection costs required, not to mention poorer crops and greater risk of crop failure.
“Poor crops and greater risk are things the family cannot afford when they need to generate sufficient returns to cover costs and pay the rent every year. That’s why we grow consistently performing wheats like Istabraq and Myriad, barleys like Glacier and Tower, oats like Gerald and OSR varieties like Anastasia and Mendel.
“It’s also why we prioritise sowing into warm soil at a consistent depth and with good seed-to-soil contact to ensure the crops get the best possible start. This and essential weatherproofing is just what Andrew achieves by running his power harrow/drill combination and packer roller right behind the plough and press."
The packer is especially essential on the heavy ground as any rain compacts the soil surface like concrete if it’s rolled.
“We then go in with a decent pre-em within 48 hours of drilling all our cereals,” he added. “Thankfully, we don’t have any black-grass. But rough stalked meadow grass is a nightmare and we’ve learnt just how costly failing to get on top of it from the start can be.
"Using Agrii’s high capacity, low ground pressure Agrifac sprayer, this can be done cost-effectively while Andrew cracks on with the drilling," he said.
On disease control, they make a point of getting a decent T0 on if conditions allow and use SDHIs at both T1 and T2 to keep ahead of any disease. "With far less curative activity these days it’s too risky not to," said Mr Hay.
The first harvest from the Aitkens’ more challenging ground last season was encouraging. Winter wheat, barley and oats were all well up to budget at 9.3 t/ha, 8.6 t/ha and 7.4 t/ha, respectively. With the change to first wheat and the first oilseed rape for many years going into Newton Farm this autumn, Andrew and Donald are looking to push wheat output to a consistent 10t/ha and OSR to comfortably over 4t/ha.
“This is the sort of performance we want to keep costs per tonne at the level we need to be sustainable,” pointed out Andrew, who is a member of the AHDB Fife Monitor Farm’s management group.