Some arable farmers are infatuated by shiny, hi-tech machinery with growers being well accustomed to forking out the big bucks for a brand new tractor, seed drill or combine harvester, but such things do little to bolster nett margins at the end of the day.

It might sound harsh, but with more than 10 years of benchmarking under his belt, Easter Ross beef, sheep and arable farmer, Donald Ross, knows exactly how new machinery can have a devastating effect on costs of production, let alone end margins.

Instead, Mr Ross, who owns and runs the 2018 AgriScot Scottish Arable Farm of the Year at Rhynie Farm in partnership with his wife, Karen and parents, George and Isabel, concentrates more on the fundamentals of cereal production, like improving soil health and attention to detail at all times.

“I’d rather pay tax than take the depreciation hit on new machinery,” said Donald, who owns all his own equipment of which most was bought second hand, with the exception of a baler and lime spreader that are hired in.

“Benchmarking using AHDB Farmbench has given me the knowledge to farm better by comparing fixed and variable costs. You can’t do much about variable costs but we do make our fixed costs work harder by doing some contract work,” said Donald, who is a member of Scottish Agronomy and the YEN Scotland Group.

Most of his machinery is at least 10 years old too, with the business relying on four tractors – the newest of which is a 2011 John Deere; a 24m boom Amazone sprayer bought in 2005; a 2008 Vaderstadt seed drill purchased this year and a 25-year-old Case combine harvester with a 22ft header. The seed drill is hired out to help make ends meet.

A firm advocate of the advisory group Scottish Agronomy, Donald and his father George have always been passionate about increasing levels of production, to such an extent that they also conduct their cereal trials on farm.

As it is, the duo have already achieved winter wheat yields of 5.99t/acre in a previous trial plot on farm, so there is potential to improve. However, the extremely dry of 2018 well and truly hit that on the head.

Last year, this 700-acre mixed beef, sheep and arable unit which comprises of various soil types to include peat and heavy clay, was made up of 370 acres of cereal crops, with the remainder put down to grass for livestock. A further 60 acres of grass is also rented down at Dornoch.

In all, 140 acres of Zulu, Skyscraper and Grafton winter wheat were grown for pig feed and distilling, which yielded 4 tonnes per acre against the 10-year average of 4.5t here.

The 122 acres of Laureate and Concerto spring barley grown for malting and sold through Highland Grain of which Donald is a former chairman, produced yields of 3.0t and 2.7t/acre, respectively, while the 42 acres of Canyon spring milling oats sold through Grainco, gave 3.0t/acre.

Oilseed rape, which is the best break crop for wheat on the farm, Donald said, saw the 30 acres of Anastasia yield 1.75t per acre.

“We had very little disease last year but you still have to use chemicals to protect the crop which is going to become increasingly more challenging as more and more chemicals are taken off the market.

“The biggest threat we face is the loss of the multi-site fungicide, clorothalonil which could cause massive problems in winter wheat and barley for the 2021 harvest. We could see grain crops with up to 40% screenings without it.”

With costs of production working out at £150 per tonne for malting barley and £125 for winter wheat, he said the business is at present able to “work away.” However, with the ongoing loss of chemicals coupled with chemical resistance, he said yields and yield quality are bound to be reduced from 2021 onwards due to the increase in weeds and diseases.

Instead, Donald has been concentrating on improving soil health and therefore that of his crops, through GPS mapping, with all fields mapped for pH, phosphate and potash for 20 years now.

“A lot of cereal production is down to pH. Get the pH right for the crop you are growing in all parts of the field and then pay attention to detail at all times. There is no point of throwing fertiliser at a crop if the pH is not right as much of it will be wasted,” he said, pointing out that his arable fields vary from 6.0-6.4 with grassland fields all targeted above 6.0.

He has also discovered yield benefits of up to 0.75t per hectare by split dressing nitrogen and sulphur fertiliser applications early on in the season.

“Five hits of nitrogen and sulphur can make a huge difference compared to just two as the crop takes up the nutrients when it needs then and it’s more environmentally friendly with less washed away,” said Donald, who applies three split dressings of potash but just one of phosphate.

The business is also working with Soil Essentials and a drone for their online precision platform Kore, to access satellite imagery which is able to highlight disease or nutrient issues before the become a problem from above and therefore ensure maximum yields in all parts of fields.

In recent years, the farm has also trialled plots using manganese to such an extent that low amounts are applied with every fungicide application, as plants appear healthier for it and therefore able to stand up to disease better reducing fungicide application.

Donald is also looking at other micronutrients such as boron, copper and zinc and bio-stimulants such as seaweed, to see it they can boost crop yields.

Admittedly, while such expertise from Soil Essentials and Scottish Agronomy doesn’t come cheap, it has helped bolster yields and management to such an extent that the business’ arable acres have made a profit and paid tax in seven out of the past eight years. It is also the best paying farming enterprise at Rhynie which relies on beef and sheep to improve soil organic matter levels.

At present, the farm is home to a 100-cow suckler herd which produces finished young bulls and heifers off mostly home-grown feeds and 230 commercial ewes all of which are lambed in May with all progeny sold as stores off grass in August/September.

In saying that, the best paying enterprise for the family, who first came to Rhynie in 1886 and bought the unit in 1908, are the eight farm cottages all of which are rented out!

With so much uncertainty surrounding Brexit, cereal prices are not going to rise much this year either and, it’s not as if the business can look forward to record yields either to boost margins.

“Crops are looking well but I can’t see there being any record yields. We’re three weeks behind as it is. Last year, our harvest was finished by the end of August but I can’t see us getting started this year until the third week of the month which is more normal for us,” concluded Donald.