Farming Connect Study Visit - AHDB Pembrokeshire Monitor Farm Group

Funded through the Knowledge Transfer, Innovation and Advisory Service programme under the Welsh Government Rural Communities – Rural Development Programme 2014 - 2020

AHDB Pembrokeshire Monitor Farm Group

Northern Ireland

8 - 9 November 2018

1) Background

On 8th November 2018, 8 delegates from the AHDB Pembrokeshire Monitor Farm group departed from Cardiff airport on a study tour to visit members of the Northern Irish Monitor Farm Group.

Pembrokeshire is a marginal cereals growing area. The challenges of arable farming there would outweigh many other areas of the UK with less favourable weather patterns reducing the windows for timeless and reducing the opportunities for making economies of scale. The trip aimed to make comparisons the farm businesses in Northern Ireland.

By visiting members of the Northern Ireland AHDB Monitor Farm we aimed to draw upon the comparisons between the 2 regions and make comparisons in farming methods and attitudes.

Farms of different shapes and sizes were selected to visit to show the group a wide variety of viewpoints of arable farming in Northern Ireland.

2) Itinerary

2.1 - Day 1

Farm visit: Richard Orr, AHDB Downpatrick Monitor Farm

Richard Orr farms with his father at Meadow Farm in Downpatrick. He grows winter wheat and spring and winter barley on 75 arable ha and the rotation also includes potatoes, turnips and grass. The soil is a dry, free-draining medium, stony loam with good organic matter. Our visit to Richard focussed around his efforts to influence and improve his soil management decisions.

Key learning outcomes:

Aim for prevention of soil structure problems – it’s a lot easier and cheaper than remedy. Richard described his top tips for managing soils:

  • Soil structure target: a soil with 50% porosity, half full of water, half air – a structure that roots and worms can readily penetrate. Organic matter measurement is a good benchmark of progress
  • Go into a field with a spade before a tractor; dig holes in and between tramlines and benchmark with a hole under the hedge
  • Look at the roots to describe the soil structure
  • Less is more! Question whether such a fine seedbed is necessary
  • Soil disturbance (cultivation) releases carbon and leads to loss of moisture
  • Will cultivation make blackgrass worse or better?
  • Regard bare ground as a waste – grow something!
  • Axle weights – spread the load
  • Tyre pressures – reduce the problem

Research visit: Lisa Black, AFBI

Lisa’s research has been investigating best practices for growing cover crops in Northern Ireland. Following introductions the group visited the AFBI cover crop trials site. These trials have been designed to illustrate the most effective methods of growing cover crops in terms of; establishment, variety choices, cover crop mixtures and destroying.

Key learning outcomes:

  1.  The generally very good levels of organic matter in Northern Ireland are helping to give their soils resilience which is evident in the generally good structures seen to depth
  2. Attention to detail on tyres, pressures and the use of medium sized tractors and equipment is limiting structure damage to levels where they can easily be managed by the kit available
  3. This Autumn, Northern Irish farmers are being advised to question if it is possible to work slightly shallower with tines, provided circumstances and conditions at harvest allow
  4. The tine based drill has been found to limit, to an extent, how cover crop surface residues, and the choice of crop itself, are managed. This is an area where some demonstrations of alternative (disc based or disc/tine based) drills could provide an insight into how best to manage such crop covers when establishing Spring crops following
  5. Grass weed control has shown to be greatly assisted by spring cropping on these soils.

Farm visit: Ian McMordie

Iain McMordie started his business as a cereal and grass farmer in the Lecale District in Northern Ireland, and recently decided to concentrate his business entirely on the production of grass for horse feed. Up until this change, Iain is part of the Lecale buying group, a small group of local farmers who grouped their buying power in order to be able to buy goods such as meal and fertiliser in bulk at lower prices. The group has been in operation for twenty years, representing ca. 2000ha of arable land and grassland. Iain has reduced his use of fertiliser through satellite navigation. The buying group clubbed together to buy the necessary equipment. The farmers were able to repay their initial investment within six months, through the savings on fertiliser and fuel alone. Iain estimates that the group is now saving about 10% per year on fertiliser. Work rate and profit margins have increased and the records of fertiliser use help them comply with reporting obligations.

Key learning outcomes:

Ian highlighted that farm crop yields are not delivering the yield potential highlighted in the recommended list.

Factors affecting yield in Northern Ireland:

  • Genetic yield potential
  • Climate/weather: high rainfall in Northern Ireland.
  • Agronomy: little availability in Northern Ireland
  • Prices & policies: fewer, larger farms, less labour, more regulation
  • Technical change: tillage, fertiliser rates, crop protection 

Ian has identified 3 key areas where he aims to address the yield plateau on his farm by trailing on farm. The group agreed that they are all key factors in encouraging productivity:

  • Headland management. One field will have four different headland cultivation practices
  • P & K Nutrition. One field will be half treated with additional P & K.
  • Variable Rate seeding. One field to be split with variable and standard rate.

2.2 - Day 2

Farm visit: Richard Kane, Broighter Gold Rapeseed Oil

The Kane family has been farming in Myroe, Limavady, Northern Ireland for over 100 years. Richard (a sixth generation farmer) now works the land at Broglasco Farm, whilst his wife Leona is responsible for the business side of Broighter Gold Rapeseed Oil. Under their joint leadership the diversification has grown into one of the UK's best known and loved rapeseed oil suppliers.

Key learning outcomes:

  • When looking to diversify do plenty of research and consult others who have experience.
  • Complete your own SWOT analysis and key competencies analysis, remember to always be truthful with yourself!
  • Be clear about what you want to achieve and how you will achieve it.
  • Prepare a business plan and seek advice from others.
  • Consider how you will manage the risk of using capital to diversify.
  • Grants are available to farmers – don’t let them fund a poor plan.
  • Consult with your bank manager a lot.

Farm visit: Robert Moore, Molenan Estate

Robert Moore farms on the Molenan Estate in Northern Ireland, where his family have farmed for more than 200 years. He switched to arable production in the late 1990s, away from beef and sheep. He still has a small suckler herd on non-suitable arable land. Having ground on both sides of the Irish border led the group to discuss the possible implications of Brexit for members.


Key learning outcomes:

  • Changes to trade can have a positive or negative effect depending on whether the UK is a net importer or exporter. Northern Ireland is feeling very vulnerable in the negotiation process.
  • Rising labour costs will impact on all sectors.
  • The top 25% of farms (in terms of their output/input ratios) are shown to be in a far stronger position to cope with the changes associated with the scenario. You measure your own business to get an idea of whether you are in the top 25%.

3) Next Steps

The farmers that we met in Northern Ireland were highly positive and adaptable to the challenges thrown at them.

Change is coming but the truth is that if we try to avoid change, hold the future at bay and throw up barriers to progress then we don’t stop change coming, we simply leave ourselves less equipped to deal with change as it arrives.

The Welsh group of farmers agreed that they needed to accept that the future of direct payments had a very different outlook to what we are used to. The sooner that their businesses are ready for this change the better.

There is a tremendous opportunity for productivity improvement in Welsh arable farms.

The group agreed that they need to continue to invest in technology and skills to be at the forefront of the arable industry.

On our return journey we discussed key take home points from the trip:

  • Define your business objectives for the short / medium / long term.
  • Don’t be afraid to take risks.
  • Understand the risk elements of your business and then categorise them accordingly.
  • Continue to strive to improve business efficiency through regular analysis. All members of the group participate in the Monitor Farm benchmarking activity. Continue to encourage others in doing this.
  • Know your business costs as this is key to identifying your business / enterprise strengths and weaknesses. The group felt that the host Northern Irish farmers had a particular attention to detail, do we always replicate that attention in Wales?
  • Invest time to attend relevant farming meetings, seminars and training – learn from each other.
  • Don’t shy away from identifying opportunities to introduce more innovative and efficient strategies and systems (e.g. collaboration, diversification)