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 recently caught up with new member Will Oliver, who farms near Coalville in Leicestershire.
AH Oliver & Son, Swepstone Fields Farm, Newton Burgoland, Leicestershire
Area farmed: 800ha arable across three farms
Soil types: Mainly clay loam
Key crops: Winter wheat, winter beans, grain maize, potatoes (80ha rented out)
Typical cultivations: Direct drilling where possible, ploughing or light disc cultivations also carried out as necessary
RAGT varieties: RGT Skyfall
Other enterprises/areas of interest: Elms Farm Poultry (200,000-bird broiler enterprise), glamping site, industrial units
Will Oliver plays a key role in the family farming business, carrying out all the agronomy on the farm and making the purchasing decisions. He is BASIS and FACTS qualified and has helped the business drive down production costs while maintaining high yields and improving the farm’s soils.
Farming with his father Alf and brother Rory, Will, a Harper Adams Graduate, returned to the family farm in 2011. The business has expanded and continued to diversify in that time, to the point where it no longer relies on subsidies to turn a profit.
“My father and grandfather bought land when it was relatively cheap, and we have used that as collateral to expand further,” says Will.
It’s not just land that has been added to the portfolio. The Olivers operate a very successful glamping business, a large industrial storage enterprise as well as a couple of fishing lakes and a livery yard. The biggest addition has been Elms Farm Poultry, a £4m 200,000-bird broiler unit that was completed in 2019.
“We realised that farming was heading for a pretty turbulent time,” says Will. “We chose poultry as it is not reliant on subsidies and was another way of spreading the risk.
“But we essentially built the unit for the muck. We had a beef unit until the early 2000s, and since then we’ve noticed the soils were declining and depleting. We tried straw for muck deals but they weren’t very satisfactory.
“Poultry manure is very similar to a fertiliser – you’re only putting it on at about 6t/ha, so you can use it on growing crops and it goes a long way. We also use a lot of digestate from a local AD plant.
“If we weren’t using organic manure, I’d use about 300t of Nitram. This year I’ve used 160t, so have nearly halved my nitrogen use while providing significant soil health benefits.”
One of the key challenges the business faced was blackgrass, which became a serious threat due to the wheat/oilseed rape rotation.
Will adopted a zero-tolerance policy, widening the rotation, introducing spring cropping and delaying autumn cereal sowing, which now starts in mid-October.
Blackgrass is now back under control, and the rotation has been simplified somewhat, consisting of 400ha of winter wheat, 160ha of grain maize, 80ha of winter beans and 80ha rented out for potatoes.
His hands-on agronomy has also enabled him to target inputs precisely, backed by precision technology and variable rate application of seed, fertiliser and lime. Variable costs for a 10t/ha crop of wheat have been cut to just £44/ha.
Grain maize is a relatively new venture and makes the best use of the poultry muck. This is the third season Will has grown the crop, and he has planted 50ha under plastic for the first time to pull the harvest date forward by three weeks. The rest of the crop was sown conventionally.
“We usually start combining in early November, but we are limited to cutting 30-40 acres a day as the grain takes a lot of drying. Sowing under plastic will help widen the window, although even in a wet time the ground is usually fine as the crop is drawing moisture all the time, and the combine is fitted with tracks. We can also follow tight behind with a plough and 6m combi to establish wheat.”
Late sown wheat
Wheats that suit late sowing are key. While yields might be a bit lower, Will can grow these crops for less. Skyfall has been a farm fixture for years, one of three key varieties on the farm.
“I tend to find a variety, learn about it and stick with it for quite a long time rather than dabble in loads of different ones. We tend to grow Skyfall for feed but this year we’ll push it for milling as the premium could be a lot better, given the price of nitrogen.
“If you don’t let yellow rust get a foothold it is easy enough to manage. We applied a cheap T0 and it had Elatus Era at T1 and probably Univoq at T2.”
A change in cultivation policy has also significantly reduced costs. Will uses a 12m Horsch Sprinter to direct drill wheats after beans and beans after wheat wherever possible.
Even after a short chat it’s clear that Will and the family have plenty more up their sleeves to continue to drive the business forward.
“I feel very privileged to be farming our land,” he says. “If the next 10 generations can do the same, we’ll have done our job– we are just custodians of the land at the end of the day.”