Case Study: Wrights Agriculture, Glebe Farm, Saxelbye, Leicestershire
Agronomy+ supports leading East Midlands family farming service development
Precise attention to detail in every aspect of growing every crop in every part of every field certainly isn’t easy when you’re managing 2400 ha in 40 separate parcels of land up to 25 miles apart under 17 different contract farming agreements.
But this is exactly what father and son, Bill and Eric Wright and their six-man Wrights Agriculture team are doing across nearly 2000 square miles of north Leicestershire and south Nottinghamshire by making the very most of modern farming and communication technologies.
From Glebe Farm, Saxelbye near Melton Mowbray, they’ve grown and developed the family business impressively over the past five years, in particular, with a tightly-managed recipe of precision, performance, efficiency and accountability based firmly on long-term land care.
Working closely with Agrii agronomist, Harry Abell, the Wrights insist on SoilQuest scanning and management zoning of all the land they farm as part each new contract agreement. Variable rate fertilisation, sowing and, increasingly now, spraying is managed through the Agrii Precision Services (APS) portal integrated with Gatekeeper and John Deere’s Greenstar system.
All agronomy recommendations are made, application information transmitted to the field team and operating records automatically up-dated to the management computer at Glebe Farm through individual iPads using the simple Dropbox system.
Amongst other things, the business-wide IT system is also used to:
• manage all field operations to detailed work plans;
• maintain all operational and field records;
• ensure all the right products are in the right places at the right times;
• provide all team members with the most cost-effective daily travel plans;
• schedule all machinery servicing and repair on contract with specialists, Farol;
• organise all seed, fertiliser and agrochemical purchasing;
• store all field, NVZ, nutrient and other maps;
• manage all grain drying and storage;
• organise all farm-saved seed processing;
• manage all business finances with Andersons; and,
• give all the farming partners and their agents access to the fullest possible records.
Individual Care and Attention
“The technology allows us manage our scale of operations with the individual field care and attention we’ve always seen as vital,” stressed Bill Wright. “Our landowners entrust us with their most valuable asset. As well as generating the best returns from it with the greatest economies of scale, we treat it as we would our own and are fully accountable for everything we do.
“We manage all our crops by individual soil zones rather than fields. The complete picture SoilQuest scanning, laser texture and soil analyses give us of each piece of ground from the start of a new contract means we can fine-tune our farming to its needs from Day One rather than having to move forward by trial and error. It also allows us to look after the ground much better for the longer term – something our partners particularly appreciate.
“They also appreciate having access to field records so they can see what we’re doing and why at every stage. And at the end of the season, the input, yield and gross margins maps we generate for each field provide us both with the best basis for charting progress and planning ahead. This sort of detail is more vital than ever under today’s financial pressures.”
From their first GPS guidance light bar in 2001 and full auto-steer combine in 2005, through simple grid-based soil sampling and yield mapping in 2007 and 2009, the Wrights have stepped-up the sophistication of their precision farming substantially in the five years since moving to the SoilQuest system based on conductivity scanning.
“Understanding the actual variations in soils across our fields has enabled us to be very much more precise in our phosphate, potash and lime applications,” explained Eric Wright. “Accounting for them effectively in our fertilisation strategy makes a big difference when we’re managing such a large area.
“More recently, we’ve been moving to variable seed rates for all our crops, varying winter wheat sowing from 100 to 400 kg/ha in some fields as much to combat grassweeds as to even-up establishment. We’re also using satellite imagery through the Agrii Precision Services portal to vary our nitrogen applications.
“Harry Abell and I are now starting to employ the satellite images to fine-tune our wheat and OSR fungicide and PGR rates too,” he added. “This season, for instance, we’ve been increasing our T0, T1 and stem-extension applications in the thicker areas of the crops carrying greater risks of disease and lodging while reducing rates in the thinner areas, applying 90-120% of the prescribed average application rate of 100 l/ha.
“At the same time, we’re taking advantage of a new Iteris service from Clarity Ag UK, using location-specific weather data and modelling to better plan and inform our applications with the most accurate predictions of field accessibility, canopy wetness and crop growth stages.
“What’s more, auto-steer on all our machinery and fixed steering lines logged into the Greenstar system and automatically provided directly to the cab via Dropbox enables our team to consistently use identical tracks across each field every year – as near as we can get to Controlled Traffic Farming without the specialist equipment.
“The key to making the most of all this precision is integrating it effectively across our business. Moving to Gatekeeper and getting rid of paper with a combination of iPads and Dropbox from 2014 has been revolutionary here – in communication with our suppliers and customers as well as with as our own team.”
Crop Planning and Management
Nowhere is this technology proving more valuable for Wrights Agriculture day-to-day, perhaps, than in Eric Wright’s crop planning and management with Harry Abell who is responsible for the agronomy on a per hectare basis.
Over the past two years, they’ve been making major strides in dealing with the business’ two biggest challenges – black-grass and disease – while improving the value and marketability of their output and sustainability of their rotations.
Based on detailed costings, they’ve switched to 100% Group 1 wheats to improve both returns and black-grass control. While the bulk of their 1200 ha of wheat is currently in Solstice, Crusoe and Skyfall, more than a quarter of the 2016 crop is Mulika. Taking full advantage of the spring variety’s great sowing flexibility, however, the vast majority of this was autumn-sown.
Quality has also become central to winter oilseed rape which remains the second most important crop in the team’s various rotations; all 600+ha of the 2016 crop being HOLL varieties, V316OL or V295OL on a fixed premium contract. And the value-added focus extends to spring barley, with a sizeable part of the current 300 ha down to a combination of Propino and an increasing amount of Explorer on contract for Budweiser.
“Group 1 wheats suit our needs well,” Harry Abell pointed out. “We know we can grow them here and get reasonable premiums from local markets to deliver good margins. As important to us, though, is the fact that they fit well into the later sowing that has become a key in our black-grass management programme.
“Mulika, in particular, is ideal. The growing system we’ve developed gives us yields every bit as good as Solstice from late-autumn sowing. And, if conditions turn against us, we know we can sow it right through to April. So we have no hesitation in holding-off on drilling until we can get decent seedbeds, and have none of the cash flow concerns over having to buy-in spring seed and over-year unsown winter seed.
“Explorer barley is a good fit for our heavy land too. It yields really well, can be sown late, is early to mature and offers us a useful premium over Propino for a higher N sample than would otherwise be required.
“With increased weed and disease pressures and the declining efficacy of chemistry, we operate a highly proactive agronomy regime based firmly on prevention,” he noted. “Using the most robust chemistry early in the season ensures we never let disease get ahead of us and allows us to cut back on inputs later on whenever we can. It also means Eric can plan purchasing well ahead at the most favourable rates and we ensure we always have the products we need when we need them.
“All my recommendations go direct from my iPad into the Glebe Farm system and from there to the operators with complete accuracy. I know they will be applied as I advise and within the time I prescribe, and I get immediate feedback through the system when they have been. This makes for the greatest all-round confidence.”
Confidence, Close-working and Continuous Improvement
“Confidence in and close-working between all our partners is central to the recipe we’ve developed,” concluded Eric Wright. “Careful monitoring and management of all our operations, the versatility of our high capacity fleet and well-integrated support from Agrii and our other suppliers ensures we maintain the attention to detail as well as scale so essential to success.
“We never sit back, though. We’re always looking for further improvements in our equipment, agronomy and overall management as we continue to grow by providing our customers with a very personal as well as precise and performance-focused service.”