Farmer Focus – Tom Sewell

Direct Driller Christmas 2022

Well here we are again! It’s the end of November and as I sit down on a wet Sunday afternoon to write this article at 3.35pm its getting dark outside! Yesterday we heard of the very sad loss of Scottish rugby great Doddy Weir to MND after a brave and long battle with this cruel disease. Life is quite often over so quickly and at times like this at the beginning of winter I always take time to question why we do what we do and how we can improve for next year.

As farmers we always have that benefit of seasons and harvest. The ability to learn from the last years mistakes and make the necessary changes for next year. Having said that we have a business model so dependant on the weather that quite often making knee-jerk decisions is not the most prudent move. 2021 gave us in the South East a pretty damp and gloomy summer. Hay was made in June and July with very damp soils and almost every ton of harvested wheat needed to be dried. Compare that with the harvest this year where virtually every ton was harvested too dry, ground was so hard and dry that cover crops couldn’t be planted and we actually stopped harvesting on 2 days due to temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius! To try and make decisions with the past 2 years as reference points when they have been so extreme is probably unwise.

Last week when Chris asked me for an article for this edition of Direct Driller he mentioned that it was the 5th anniversary and perhaps I’d like to look back on the past 5 years and how things had changed. So I thought I’d look back at where we were 5 years ago, where we are now and what our plans are for the future.

In 2017 we were a good 4 years into our no-till adventure. After gaining a Nuffield Scholarship in November 2012 and travelling in 2013/14 we had been using our cross-slot drill, planting cover crops and not cultivating for enough years to know it worked. Yields and establishment were consistent, we were farming using lower inputs and we continued to seek ways to improve. Having said that we were still using a relatively conventional agronomist, albeit independent, and applying somewhere near 300kg N/ha in order to get “full-spec” milling wheat. Much of the machinery was very similar to what we are using today with the exception of the drill. Fast forward to this year and over the past 2-3 years we have made a few changes that have had a dramatic effect. The first was to change agronomist and drastically reduce our nitrogen usage. We now use a company that take care of crop agronomy and nutrition as well as soils, and monitoring what’s needed. I get access to a team of experts willing to think so far out of the box that farming has become interesting and fun again.

For those of you that aren’t aware of our farming system, we farm as a family partnership with my wife Sarah and my parents. My parents are first generation farmers and of the 17 landowners who we work with we only own 4% of the land. Both Dad and myself are Nuffield Scholars and there are a few sayings and helpful quotes that we farm by. When Dad returned from his Nuffield travels in 1991 his conclusion was quite simple “Debt = Vulnerability”.  

Another one of his sayings is “we make money because we don’t spend money”. What we mean is that we aim to eliminate all unnecessary costs from the business which allows us to make profit, even in difficult years. There are a number of things that we don’t do and each one is our choice and not a criticism of those who do partake in them. Some of these are…the use of P&K from a bag for 18+ years now, borrowing money or the use of an overdraft, buying machinery on finance, working Sundays, paying agents or consultants, using insecticides, seed treatments or 3C growth regulators. We don’t bale straw (except for Oat straw before wheat), we don’t cultivate other than to lift compaction where necessary, our children don’t go to fee paying schools and we are not members of the NFU.

There are a number of marginal gains that are achieved which when combined add up to a significant saving and can turn what would be a loss into a profit.

On the back of my office desk I have a couple of post-it notes stuck to the wall reminding me of important things! One is the dates of birth of my 4 children as I have spectacularly forgotten this in the past when asked to fill in important forms!!

The second one is taken from a Nicole Masters talk which simply lists the following, “MINDSET, MANAGEMENT, MICROBES, MINERALS, ORGANIC MATTER”

The other 2 are.. “Need or Want?” and “Watching or Doing?”

I mentioned that we had recently changed our drill. The 4.8m cross-slot drill which we had built on farm in the spring of 2014 had served us well and 2 years ago was backed up by a second hand 4m Horsch Sprinter as we had increased our acreage. With the development of technology, wider drills and a £25k grant on offer we chose to order a 12m Horsch Avatar. This is two and a half times the width of the cross-slot but pulled comfortably with the same tractor! This has dramatically increased our output and reduced our fuel usage. This has meant we can start drilling later in the autumn allowing black grass to germinate and sprayed off pre-drilling. To be honest we didn’t need it but the added capacity has been really appreciated this year allowing us to get all the wheat and beans planted in good conditions before the rain arrived.

But she’s a lump!!

This year we planted our first wheats all direct into stubbles (bean, grass & linseed) with the avatar. We used home saved seed that was not treated. We didn’t roll after planting and then applied pre-em or peri-em herbicides. The drilling was carried out with a 16 year old tractor using roughly 4 litres of diesel per hectare. The crops have all emerged evenly and look well-set going into the winter.

This is where we are currently at! I’m struggling to see where we can save much more money in terms of establishment. Looking to the future there are a few things on my mind that we need to be prepared for.

Firstly getting our yards, stores and basic infrastructure sorted whilst we still have BPS payments. This year we have put up another grain store/general purpose extension to a shed at home giving us another 500 square metres of storage which equates to roughly 1200 tons of wheat. We will spend this winter and next spring putting up the concrete wall panels, spill plates and sorting the yard drainage. In late spring the floor will be laid and the concrete apron finished. Electrics are currently being installed and we’ll finish by installing a sectional door. This will then give us three covered bunkers capable of 4000t of wheat storage at home as well as storage at Weald Granary which offers us drying and blending capability. We are continuing to clear out old and unused machinery with the sale of our 3m power harrow combination drill and an Amazon fert spreader which have been unused for the past 5-6yrs+!!

We are looking closely at collaboration with a couple of neighbours to see how we can be even more efficient when it comes to spraying and harvest. And with the run up to Christmas its very easy to spend time and money going all over the country attending conferences, meetings and as my wife would say “jollies”!!  I’ve reduced my meeting attendance to those I deem essential and valuable and would much rather spend a day in the workshop in my overalls with the wood burning fired up listening to the radio whilst fabricating my new workbench! Of course there are some meetings that are just downright enjoyable such as “Nutters meetings” (our local cover crop group) and “farmers fat-boy breakfast meeting”!!! (Nutters plus selected others where we occasionally meet up to have breakfast together)

Our old combination drill is for sale!

Meeting up with other farmers for no other reason that to chew the fat and put the world to rights is very important given how much time we spend isolated for long parts of the year. Many may not see it as essential but in order to be successful I believe you have to enjoy what you are doing. I’m optimistic about the future given the changes that we have made over the past 5-10 years.

Finally can I wish you all a very relaxing Christmas and a New Year in which you look out for a neighbour, give that friend a call and take time to occasionally sit back and enjoy the view.