Winners follow-up: David Fuller-Shapcott – 2018 Arable Innovator of the Year
Change is a challenge, but it is inevitable and necessary for business growth, says David Fuller-Shapcott, 2018 winner of the Arable Innovator of the Year Award. Clemmie Gleeson reports.
Future-proofing his arable business for life beyond subsidies is a focal point for David Fuller-Shapcott.
While he has a clear vision for where he would like to take the farm in the future, he is well aware of the threats coming over the horizon and is adjusting accordingly.
Key moves have seen the Roxburghshire farmer move away from the plough and take advantage of every opportunity to further his knowledge and understanding of crop production to maximise yield.
David has been farming near Kelso, in the Scottish Borders, since his family made the move from Wiltshire in 1988. Of the 281-hectare (694-acre) unit owned by the family, most is used for combinable crops, plus 17ha (42 acres) of woodland and 32ha (79 acres) of permanent grass, which is let to local graziers. An additional 88ha (217 acres) are tenanted and 32ha (79 acres) contract farmed.
Today, the business is run by David, with one permanent member of staff, Andrew Playfair, and two casual workers during harvest.
Crops include winter oilseed rape, winter wheat, spring oats and both spring and winter barley.
For the past five years, David has been operating a min-till system and this move, along with his involvement in the Yield Enhancement Network (YEN) and efforts to understand and improve soil health, have helped define the recent focus of the business, he says.
David says: “In a few years’ time we will potentially have very little in the way of subsidies, so we have to start addressing how we will farm successfully without them.
From an arable point of view, this is a serious challenge.
“Stripping costs out of the system is one way to do that, as well as increasing yields. Here, we have gone from a plough-based system five years ago to min-till and, in five years, I expect to be using a low or no-till establishment system.
“We will have removed quite a lot of costs and, if this is done in a controlled way which maximises outputs, it can only be a positive step forward. Around
the world, other countries with no or little subsidies, such as the United States, Australia and South America, are all using direct drilling or no-till establishment, as they have no choice.”
The move to min-till has required investment in a new cultivator, which works well and fits in with the farm’s plan to progress towards no or low-till farming. It is also now used as part of a one-pass establishment system for winter oilseed rape.
David says: “Min-till has not been without its hitches, but broadly speaking, it has gone very well for us.”
David is currently running two fields as a trial of a low-till system.
He says: “We harvested wheat in September, then drilled Italian rye-grass over winter. That part of the farm is low ground and not particularly cold, so grass basically grew through winter and provided winter grazing.
“We will shortly be direct drilling it with spring oats, which will mean we will have three crops in two years, which is interesting. This sort of concept could
well change the future of this farm.”
David’s involvement in the YEN has helped him increase his wheat yields by about 10 per cent in five years.
More recently, he has also joined with his oilseed rape crops and those yields have grown by some 20 per cent in his two years’ involvement.
The ADAS initiative looks at understanding the restrictions on yield and how to improve them through better understanding of two critical concepts: light capture and water capture at plant level.
He says: “We need to think about crops in terms of their leaves being solar panels and their roots for collecting water.”
The scientists involved in the project gave David yield potentials based on average rainfall and sunlight available on-farm.
He says: “Mine was 18-18.5 tonnes/ ha, which is well above world records. But it made us think seriously about how we can get as close to that as possible.”
He has since been awarded bronze and silver awards for achieving 69 and 73 per cent of the yield potential, respectively, which he puts down to taking on board the knowledge gained from scientists’ feedback on his crops.
Each year, they give feedback on the performance of each crop, based on extensive testing of grains and now tissue analysis too, which detects if plants suffered from any deficiencies during growth.
This may include suggestions for nitrogen application, which has been useful for David, as the farm is in a nitrate vulnerable zone, so nitrogen application has to be justified.
He says: “The YEN is about bringing science down to a practical level. I learn something different every year. Each report is 20-plus pages and I read them all probably a dozen times during the year.”
Improving soil health has been a focus for David and an area he believes has further potential.
He says: “Eight years ago, we decided to experiment with min-till with one field and it has not been ploughed since.”
The field in question is ‘sticky and wet’ with about 30 per cent clay and is, therefore, ‘quite a challenge’, he says.
Over the eight years, David has added organic amendments, namely chicken muck to feed the soil, and he has been surprised to see organic matter increase by 3 per cent.
He says: “I find it incredible that we have made that much difference in a short period of time. That field is definitely where I could go into no-till establishment and that is what I want to eventually roll-out over the farm.
“I think cover crops might speed up the process a bit. Cover crops are certainly in vogue at the moment, but they are not cheap.”
Benchmarking is important to the business and David belongs to a benchmarking group, which was originally part of Scotland’s Monitor Farm scheme, a move he describes as ‘massively educational’.
His ethic and his forward-thinking approach is evident in all aspects of his arable work and are contributing factors to winning the Arable Innovator of the Year Award at last year’s British Farming Awards.
He says: “Entering the competition was an opportunity to take part in a self- and peer-review, which I think is excellent. It was a honour to win.”
His win has also opened further doors he might never have imagined, he says. “I have been asked to speak at a farming conference in Romania in November. It is hosted by an organisation for large farmers with 1,000ha-plus; much bigger than us, but they remain fascinated by UK farmers’ attention to detail.
“That is a fantastic opportunity, which undoubtedly would not have happened had I not won the award. It is one of the unknown benefits of entering; you never know where it might lead and to opportunities you could not begin to think of. That, I think, is one of the exceptional things about it.”
David has also been featured on television, which has helped raise his business and personal profiles.
“The whole experience was good. These things make you think about what you are doing and how you are doing it, which is constructive in itself. You think about what you are doing, whether it is right and ways to improve.
“Nobody should be afraid of trying something new or different. If we make mistakes, it is not wrong as long as we learn from it. Not learning from mistakes can leave you standing still and not improving.”