Forging a winning career in farm management

AFTER 20 months as farm manager at Rougham Estate Farms, 25-year-old Simon Eddell has been awarded the Velcourt Chairman’s Cup for the advances he has made.

When Simon Eddell decided to pursue a career in agriculture, several people queried his choice. But he had always known that arable farming was the life for him, and now, just a few years later, his career has progressed to a point that not even he could have imagined.

After graduating from Newcastle University with a degree in agriculture with farm business management in 2008 Simon joined the Velcourt farm manager training scheme. This saw him working at Haverholme near Sleaford, Lincolnshire before taking the assistant manager role at Vine Farm near Royston.

He was just 23 years old when he took the reins at Rougham Estate Farms near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, in April 2011.

“It was quite a jump up for me going from assistant to full manager. It is a lot of responsibility and that took a bit of getting used to,” admits Simon. “But the support I have got from Velcourt has been enormous.”

Simon believes his degree taught him the science behind farming. “But the Velcourt training scheme taught me how to actually farm.”

Taking on the management of 1,221 hectares (2,930 acres) was daunting, he says, but Simon credits the training scheme with giving him a range of experiences which exposed him to different situations and the opportunity to learn from many different people. “There are always several different ways to skin a cat, but you work out yourself the best way to do things.

“The previous farm manager here was very meticulous with everything so there wasn’t anything urgently needing doing when I arrived. But he had his way of doing things and I have mine, so while I have carried on with some of his ideas there are other things I have implemented.”

Soil variation

The biggest challenge at Rougham is the huge variation in soils, says Simon. “It does have its advantages but it creates huge challenges too. We have to be organised and meticulous about prioritising.”

Improving soil structure and fertility has been a major goal for Simon since he arrived. “I am trying to move away from the plough and use more muck and sewage sludge where it is needed. We’re using chicken muck in front of oilseed rape crops and it’s like rocket fuel. It really gets the rape crops going and we can see the effects in the following wheat crops too.” Meanwhile the sugar beet land is being treated to mushroom compost. “We apply it in the autumn and plough it down.”

He is also currently looking at the use of green manure crops. “We’re trying rye/vetch mixes and oil radishes and it’ll be interesting to see what the results are in the following crops.”

Simon is keen to use min-till on the majority of the farm. “We will still plough for sugar beet and between cereal crops in the rotation as it’s the only way I can see that we can control volunteers.” He is also hot on the heels of black-grass. “On our lighter soils it is not a huge problem although we do have some specific fields where it is an issue.”

His approach is to delay drilling, use higher seed rates and plenty of glyphosate and to stack pre-emergence herbicides. “I have experienced bad black-grass and certainly don’t want it here.”

Simon has introduced more precision technology to the farm having worked with it elsewhere. “It’s a no brainer for me,” he says. “Both our main cultivation tractors are now on full steer auto guidance. We’re also moving towards using precision technology for P and K next year and also looking at variable rate seeding as well for the future.

“The three full-time staff members have a huge amount of experience amongst them – one is retiring in three years time and will have been here for 50 years. They are a great bunch and get on well with one another.

“I think they were quite sceptical to start with some of my ideas as they were going slightly against what they were used to, but now they have seen that it works.”

Just 3.5 miles from the Bury St Edmunds sugar factory beet is an important crop. This year Simon is growing 100ha (240 acres) on the Rougham farm plus a further 23ha (55 acres) under a contract farming agreement. Previously the five-year average yield for the crop has been 70t/ha (29t/acre) although early results for this year’s harvest are slightly lower.

“This year has not been good for sugar beet. We had a cold spell through April when the crop was at cotyledon stage and first true leaf. It lasted five to six weeks so it has a huge amount of making up to do.

“However we have managed 65t/ha at 17.75 per cent sugar so far. It will still put on weight for the next few weeks so we could still achieve 70t/ha.”

Beet lifting

Beet is lifted in four stages – September, October, December and January. The earliest lift was introduced by Simon after the farm experienced losses from frosting in 2010. “Leaving 25 per cent of the crop until after Christmas, rather than over 30 per cent, reduces the risk a bit,” he explains.

“At Rougham sugar beet provides a good break crop. We lift from the heavy land early and try to get a crop of wheat in afterwards. Anything left until after October is drilled with spring barley. It helps to spread the rotation and helps spread our work load in the utumn. It also means we can run a smaller combine, so it works well.”

The rotations across the farm vary according to the soil type, says Simon. The lighter soils are used for rye, sugar beet and spring barley (and occasionally oilseed rape) while the sandy clay loam area is generally wheat, winter barley, rape and sugar beet. On the heavy land it is either continuous wheat or wheat followed by oilseed rape.

Rye is grown on contract for Ryvita through an Openfield-Velcourt partnership. Milling wheat is grown for Openfield and Warburtons and this year Simon has started making the change to Crusoe from Hereward. “The financial incentive to grow Hereward is not there anymore so I’m looking for improvements in agronomy and yield with Crusoe.” The remaining varieties used are group four hard wheats (JB Diego, Duxford, Relay and Santiago).

This year’s cereal harvest has been good, says Simon. “Although the wheats have been slightly below budget the barley, oilseed rape and rye have all performed above budget.”

The farm’s Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme agreement was a particular learning curve for Simon. “It has taken a lot of work as you can’t just put it in the ground and leave it.” To make things simpler he has introduced a hedging programme. “Every hedge is now mapped and colour coded and cut in certain years.” He has also brought hedge cutting back in-house. “It worked out cheaper for us to buy our own cutter and put our existing men on it than to use a contractor.”

Simon has plenty of longer term goals for the business at Rougham: “On an arable farm it takes at least 18 months to two years before you see the impact of some changes.

“There are lots of ambitions I have for the business, so if I can continue to expand the business I don’t see any reason to move. It is a fantastic opportunity.

“When I first started my degree agriculture was not a good industry to go into. It wasn’t until I left that commodity prices started to increase and ever since then it has grown and grown. With the average age of farmer in mid-fifties there will be an awful lot of jobs and opportunities for farming agreements for the younger people coming into the industry.”

Farm Facts

·      Rougham Estate, near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

·      Managed by Velcourt

·      1,221 hectares (2,930 acres)

·      Soil types: Variable but predominantly sandy clay loam

·      Cropping: Winter wheat, rye, winter oilseed rape, winter and spring barley and sugar beet

·      Farm manager Simon Edell, plus three full-time staff


Agronomy approaches

·      Focusing on soil structure improvements

-      Moving away from ploughing to min-till

-      Applying chicken litter and mushroom compost

·      Making use of stale seedbeds, delayed drilling and stacked pre-emergence herbicides to control black-grass

·      Introducing precision technology for P and K application and looking at variable rate seeding

·      Early sugar beet lift introduced

·      Growing rye on contract for Openfield/Warburtons

·      Switching milling wheat from Hereward to Crusoe



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