Meet our Growers, Andrew Cawood and Michael Playfair

Updated: Nov 13, 2019

We know how our varieties perform in trial but what’s even more important is how they perform on farm, and that’s where our Growers Club comes in.

We would like to introduce two of our Growers Club members, Andrew Cawood and Michael Playfair, who are sharing their insights and experience with some of our varieties.

Andrew Cawood

A & S M Cawood, Burley House Farm, South Milford, North Yorkshire.

Area farmed: 240ha

Soil types: Sandy silt loam to silty clay loam, all over magnesium limestone.

Key crops: Winter wheat (feed), winter barley (feed), spring barley (malting), winter oilseed rape, spring beans. Land rented for vining peas and potatoes.

Typical rotation – First wheat, second wheat/barley, break (flexible, depending on soil type and weather).

Cultivations: Varying, depending on soil type and weather.

RAGT varieties: Wheat: RGT Gravity. Spring barley: RGT Planet.

A committed RGT Planet grower, Andrew has more recently taken up another RAGT variety in the shape of RGT Gravity, the highest-yielding Group 4 hard wheat on the 2019-20 Recommended List.

“I have been a fan of RGT Planet for many years, as it has consistently yielded better than other varieties and we can achieve the nitrogen spec with no trouble.

“It did very well for us again this year. We grew 45ha and we were able to get it drilled early, at the end of February, into a good seed-bed.

“It yielded 8.45t/ha despite widespread lodging. This was caused by exceptionally heavy rainfall and was certainly not unusual in this area this harvest.”

His 40ha of RGT Gravity was, with a yield of 11.6t/ha, the best wheat on the farm by a good measure, as described elsewhere in this newsletter, and he is growing a similar area this season.

While both these species are guaranteed a future on the farm, oilseed rape is another matter. Flea beetle has arrived in droves, and he lost 6ha to the pest last year and yields on the surviving area averaged 3.5t/ha, 1t below budget.

“The price has helped offset that, but the jury is still out,” says Andrew. “We stuck with it this year as, very importantly, there are zero tariffs on the crop in case of a no-deal Brexit.

“We used a contractor to direct drill the rape to reduce moisture loss. So far the 35ha has emerged well. We’ll see how it goes.”

The farm suffers some blackgrass issues, but all fields are walked. A robust herbicide strategy, coupled with spring cropping and careful cultivation choice is containing the weed at present.

Cultivations include Flatlift/direct drilling for OSR, TopDown ahead of wheat, and ploughing, both for late-drilled heavier land to help it dry out and pre-Christmas for spring crops.

“Usually we combination drill everything. The direct drill is an experiment, and I think rape is the correct crop in which to use it.

“A healthy soil is key to optimise crop production and to control problem weeds like blackgrass, especially with larger, heavier machinery causing compaction. We do not grow soil health crops, but may consider it.”

Andrew has just applied for the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, with an eye to a more environmentally-based support system post Brexit.

“We are facing a huge period of uncertainly at the moment. At a recent meeting, a speaker from a leading bank outlined the three biggest threats to UK farming as he saw them – tariffs, lack of labour and loss of support payments.

“We have to do as much as we can prepare our businesses against such a backdrop, influencing what we can to the best of our ability and trying to prepare for events outside our control.

“At the end of the day I, like every other farming business, am trying to be profitable, but it isn’t getting any easier!”

Michael Playfair

Partner, J K Playfair & Sons, Abbey Mains, Haddington, East Lothian.

Area farmed: 170ha.

Soil types: Medium loam (Kilmarnock, Macmerry and Darvel series).

Key crops: Winter wheat (100ha), spring oats (20ha), spring beans (15ha); rented out potatoes (11ha), vegetables (6ha). Grass and agri-environment schemes (balance of area).

Typical rotation: Beans, winter wheat, winter wheat, oats, winter wheat, winter wheat, potatoes/vegetables.

Cultivations: Min-till giving way to strip till and no-till.

RAGT varieties: Skyfall, RGT Illustrious.

Every hectare of cropping at Abbey Mains is aimed at human consumption markets. Michael Playfair takes great pride in growing the best produce he can, despite the extra management this entails.

“It is very satisfying knowing that our crops are in demand with much of it ending up in familiar products on the shop shelves. I like to think we are doing our bit as a business to help feed the country.”

Variety selection is key to fulfilling market demands. All wheats are Group 1 varieties grown for breadmaking and destined for mills in Edinburgh, Kirkcaldy and Wigton, Cumbria.

Spring oats are sent to mills in Cupar, Banff and Crewe, while spring beans are sent to Hull for export. Land is let out for potatoes, sprouts, cabbage and parsnips.

A range of milling wheats are grown. Skyfall has been a favourite for several years, thanks to its popularity among end users. RGT Illustrious is also in demand, thanks to its excellent quality, which has been compared to Hereward, one of the best breadmaking wheats of the modern era.

“Skyfall has looked good this year and I like the look of RGT Illustrious. It has a good disease resistance scores – quality is weather related and robust disease resistance is becoming increasingly important, as is good standing ability.”

RGT Illustrious can be drilled earlier than Skyfall and ripens slightly later, helping to spread the workload.

Cultivations have moved away from the plough to min-till, with strip-till and no-till now being trialled. Grassweeds have become more problematic as a result, but remain manageable.

Large quantities of compost, digestates and poultry manure are applied each year to raise soil fertility, and cover crops are increasingly used to minimise bare soils over winter.

The farm has also entered into three options under the Agri-Environment Climate Scheme – green manure, wild bird seed and grass margins.

“As well as the aesthetics, these are useful management tools,” says Michael. “In addition, the food chain is increasingly demanding that growers can prove their environmental credentials.”

Michael intends to continue crops for food, but only if it is worthwhile. “If we continue to see further pressure on margins, more restrictions and the spectre of cheap imports post-Brexit, this will inevitably mean less food will be grown for UK consumers by British farmers, myself included.

“This cannot be right as it will increase air miles and mean more lower quality food from less sustainable sources, grown with inputs we no longer have access to. We need a strong government with a coherent food policy to avoid this becoming a reality.”

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