“Making the best of it” – we catch up with Lincolnshire grower Rob Ramsay
R B Ramsay & Sons, West Gate Farm, Scotton, Gainsborough, Lincolnshire
- Area farmed: 235ha
- Soil types: Blowing sand, sandy and medium loams, some heavier outcrops
- Key crops: Winter wheat, winter oilseed rape, spring barley
- Typical rotation: Split 50% wheat/50% breaks
- Main cultivations: Shallow min till, minimal subsoiling
- RAGT varieties: RGT Bairstow
Increasingly unpredictable weather is becoming the norm, says Rob, with this autumn delivering the latest in a series of setbacks that have hit income hard.
However, Rob, who farms in partnership with his brother Andy, remains sanguine, despite the pressures. “In a way these events make us more determined to beat the odds – we keep coming back for more. I’m not sure if it’s ignorance or idiocy, but at least we keep smiling,” he quips.
“In the past seven years we’ve experienced two very wet autumns and a tornado that hit us in 2017 just before wheat harvest. That was the most serious setback – crops were shredded and we harvested just 1t/ha of wheat.
“In autumn 2019 it didn’t stop raining so we had to put the whole farm into spring barley.”
A good start
This season hasn’t turned out much better, he adds. “We got off to a good start, sowing all our wheat in the first half of October after achieving a good blackgrass chit. We also managed to apply a pre-emergence herbicide.”
In all 110ha of RGT Bairstow and other soft Group 4s destined for local mills was drilled. “Our land is not well bodied enough to achieve the highest yields, so we grow soft wheats that are easy to manage and complement each other, aiming for high 3-4t/acre plus an £8-10/t premium. It usually works, but you can’t mitigate against bad weather.”
Rain started falling in earnest in mid-October, and kept topping up through to the year end. “Fields weren’t just sticky – you could see the moonlight dancing off them,” says Rob. “Crops took ages to emerge and then faced continuous slug pressure – it’s been too wet to apply pellets.
“I’d say 60% of the total area is ruined and the rest doesn’t look particularly rosy. It’s a big hit – we’ve spent £80/ha on seed and a further £100/ha on sprays, and another big outlay on establishment costs. And then there’s the loss in yield at the other end.
“I’ve kept some wheat back, which tested fine for sowing, but if we can’t drill it by mid-January we’ll switch to something else, hopefully spring barley, but it might end up being whatever I can get my hands on.”
Lifting the mood
Oilseed rape, sown a few days in to September after the main flea beetle migration, has helped lift the mood. “We planted 100ha with a buckwheat and clover companion crop, which seems to have helped protect rape plants from the elements and deter flea beetle to an extent.
“Growth has slowed and some headlands are turning purple – the roots do need some air. But hopefully crops are set up reasonably well for the winter.”
The partners are looking to all avenues to help future-proof the business. After growing only winter wheat and oilseed rape for the past two seasons to make the most of good prices, they are reverting to a more mixed rotation.
This will include spring cropping, which will also help open up some potentially useful SFI options.
“I am going through the scheme now,” says Rob.” When you start doing some of the figures, growing spring barley after an overwinter cover could achieve an oilseed rape-type return on lighter land. And building organic matter levels should increase cash crop yields in the longer term.
“We’ve also been growing phacelia and wild flower mixes in some field corners. I think we’ll put a few more low-yielding areas into the scheme, such as light sandy areas that burn up.
“You have to go through the options with a fine-tooth comb. It’s not all money in the bank – inputs and establishment costs have to be paid for, and seed is expensive for what it is.
“As tenants paying rent, we have to cover two outgoings on any fallow land before seeing a benefit for ourselves. We’ll need to make doubly sure we only take out unprofitable areas.”