It seems pretty clear that any farmer averaging 3.9 tonnes per hectare of oilseed rape off his land over the past three years – and getting big premiums for good oil content – must be doing something right.

The farmer in this case is Jack Bosworth, who farms with his father Stuart at Spains Hall, Willingale in Essex, and he knows exactly what he is doing right.

Trading as F J Bosworth and Sons, the father and son team run a pig and arable operation that could almost be used as the dictionary definition of sustainable farming – and it’s one stage of that sustainable loop that makes a significant contributions to Jack’s impressive yields across his cereals and oilseeds.

“The slurry from the pigs does two vital jobs for us each year,” Jack explained. “The first is an application by dribble bar in the autumn, which we do just before planting our oilseed rape.

“That slurry application works like liquid gold. The instant nitrogen hit seems to be enough to give the rape a head start. We took over four tonnes per hectare off last year and three and a half tonnes this year, which we were delighted with under the circumstances.”

Jack explained that he also grows winter barley, which is typically harvested in mid July. “This gives us time to chit and eliminate volunteers before applying slurry and drilling the new rape crop towards the end of August,” he said.

“I’m not one for early drilling unless perfect conditions arise. Late August drilling suits us for volunteer control, labour availability and fresh seed availability and gives the previous OSR crop just harvested a chance to germinate, which I believe gives the flea beetle and slugs something else to go at.

“I am certain that we couldn’t achieve the consistently good yields and premiums, such as £99 per hectare for oil content, without the slurry. Tramspread Contracting, the company that spreads it for us, tells me that our slurry holds the company record for nitrogen content.”

The second slurry application, in spring, helps the farm’s second wheat crops maintain good health and nutrition even in a dry spring such as this one. “After a very dry spring, some wheats didn’t uptake their final nitrogen so well and that has resulted in poorer yields, particularly on lighter land,” Jack said.

“The slurry kept the growth greener for longer and was particularly useful in the dry spring. The two inches of rain we then had in late May/June also helped, and we combined at an average of 4.3 tonnes per acre, which is slightly better than we have achieved with the first wheat we have harvested so far.”

A successful wheat crop is important to the business, since it supports the farm’s impressive sustainability loop. All the wheat and winter barley grown on the land is used to feed the 600 sow indoor unit and half the progeny that Spains Hall is home to – creating more slurry to support next year’s crop.

The feeding operation is equally sustainable, since the farm has two solar installations that generate enough electricity to run the business’ in-house mill and mix facility, allowing the Bosworths to feed their animals from home-grown ingredients mixed with home-grown energy.

With the father and son team having recently doubled the business’ pig population and in a bid to continue to expand the business, Jack is now looking to increase the amount of contract farming he offers – and it comes with a distinct bonus.

“We can store 4,500 cubic metres of slurry on site, but with the extra pigs we have some to spare and so we are looking to provide a contracting service that will allow nearby farms to benefit from the ‘liquid gold’ that is proving so successful here at Spains Hall,” said Jack.

Taking on more contract farming will also help make efficient use of the impressive Claas Tucano 430 combine harvester that is part of the equipment line up at the farm, which has been owned by the family since 1934.

The Tucano has also given Jack two additional income streams; a larger area of contract combining and increased demand for his straw since the straw walker machine produces an impressive quality and volume of straw.

“A walker machine is perhaps slower than a rotor, but I’m netting an extra £50 per acre on average due to the quantity and quality of straw we produce,” Jack said. “I use SOYL for regular soil nutrient analysis, and if phosphorus levels come back lower than I would like I incorporate the straw for a year and spread farmyard manure on affected areas.

“I incorporate straw on headlands – except for winter barley – to help maintain a good soil structure in the areas which are obviously most susceptible to compaction. I sell the rest, but I wouldn’t do so if the price dropped below £35 a tonne as there wouldn’t be enough in it after budgeting for topping up key soil elements.”
Jack grows four combinable crops on the 270 hectares at Spains Hall, with the fourth one being marrowfat peas that are mainly turned into Japanese bar snacks.

Jack’s great grandfather Frederick started keeping pigs in 1919 and moved to the current land 15 years later. Fred had two sons; Stuart’s father Tony and Henry who is now 88, lives nearby and is still a partner in the business.

Henry’s son Simon was also a partner in the business until March 2018 and was running the arable side of the farm while Tony’s Son Stuart looked after the pigs.

Jack, who had been gaining management experience as the harvest manager for Strawson’s leek enterprise in Nottingham, returned to the family farm in September 2017 so that he could be ready to play his part in the business following Simon’s retirement six months later.

The business plan now is for Carol, Stuart and Jack – who is due to become a partner shortly – to move the business forward as a family unit. Jack and Stuart knew that to raise the necessary cash they would need to rethink their approach in some areas, expand the profitable parts of the enterprise and trim costs elsewhere.

Leaving Stuart to concentrate on the pigs he had been farming for many years, Jack studied the arable side of the business and was concerned at the high establishment costs, mainly caused by extensive ploughing and power harrowing. “It’s a good system but very expensive,” he commented.

The farm now exclusively uses Weaving machinery for establishment in areas that are not ploughed. “We use a Weaving Subdisc, which is an excellent one-pass machine that brings much needed versatility,” said Jack. “We purchased a Weaving Shortdisc recently and this again brings versatility and offers extremely high work rates to reduce time and labour requirements.

“We also have a new Weaving Sabre tine drill that allows us to drill into any system whether that is direct, min till or plough-based.”

With the farm’s existing machinery becoming outdated and attracting rising maintenance costs, the business invested in two Massey Ferguson tractors, one 180hp and the other 200hp, bought from R W Crawford Agricultural Machinery, which opened a state-of-the-art new depot in Writtle in 2018.

The tractors were complemented by an Amazone UX3200 sprayer with an auto shut-off function that Jack estimates will cut pesticide costs by around 5%.

All the arable vehicles have GPS and all establishment, except for ploughing, and application operations are carried out using an RTK signal. This has improved efficiency, reduced compaction and allowed detailed analysis of operations. “A lot of the machinery also benefits from service contracts and good warranty cover, allowing the business to keep control of its costs and reduce the chances of unexpected repair bills,” added Jack.

As well as starting to develop the arable side, selling straw and picking up more contracting work, Jack continued to work with his father on modernising and growing the pig operation at Spains Hall.

When he joined the business, the farm had a 270 sow breeder/feeder herd, all kept indoors on a mixture of straw and slats. Looking to the future, Stuart and Jack knew they needed to expand the herd to generate more capital.

That expansion needed better and more up-to-date accommodation for the sows, and so Jack and Stuart took a trip to Belgium with Quality Equipment, where they were shown a modern pig building and ordered a replica copy for Spains Hall at a cost of close to £1 million.

While commissioning the building in January 2019, the family realised that they had been practising precision farming on the arable side since 2012 but were not making the best use of technology to support the pig operation. They redressed the balance by investing in electronic sow feeding that delivers a precise, carefully measured amount of food to each of the 600 sows on the farm.

Ear tags tell the computer which sow is looking for food and will deliver it to the feeder as long as she hasn’t exceeded her day’s ration. The same ear tag allows the computer to check whether or not the animal needs to be separated for serving, a vaccination or pregnancy scan – or any other reason. If the tag indicates that she needs separating, a gate system ushers her into a holding pen. “It’s much simpler than trying to find the sow you want amongst many others,” Jack noted.

Another job that is now much simpler is detecting sows and gilts that have not been serviced successfully. A boar is penned in each corner of the dry sow house, together with a heat monitor. When a sow pokes her head into the pen, the monitor gives her a heat reference number – again allocated to the sow via her ear tag – and an automatic email alerts Stuart, Jack and the pig unit staff to her condition.

“Previously we had to run a boar up and down the passage between the sows trying to work out which one was interested,” Jack said. “That wasn’t fun or efficient.”

The extra efficiency brought by the new technology means that the same size team now looks after a doubled breeding stock. “Excellent” stockman Alex Lake is supported by Zoe Barton, “an impressive new entrant to the industry who was running a pet-sitting business until the Covid-19 lockdown struck”, and Charles Clack, who joined a month ago and is studying at Writtle University College.

While the coronavirus affected Zoe’s previous livelihood, it didn’t harm the Bosworths’. Their pigs are all sent to an abattoir that supplies catering companies, restaurants and local butchers, and with demand for locally produced meat increasing dramatically, trade increased.

The new building at Spains Hall has accommodation for 440 dry sows, 60 farrowing crates, a service house and accommodation for gilts, but with the number of sows more than doubling, Stuart and Jack needed somewhere for the weaners to be sent for finishing.

The business’s nutritionist, Zarkos-Smith Associates, put Stuart in touch with another client, a Norfolk farmer who was looking to stop breeding pigs so that he could concentrate on his other business interests.

He had ready-made accommodation and now provides ‘bed and breakfast’ accommodation for the Bosworth weaners. Stuart makes the 200-mile round trip to Norfolk virtually every week to deliver 150 weaners for finishing.

When the weaners are at their finished weight, they are delivered to an abattoir near to the Norfolk unit. Spains Hall, which has high welfare standards that are reflected in its Red Tractor accreditation, is currently selling around 29 pigs per sow per year.

Another innovation in the farrowing house has helped give the weaners an early boost while reducing stress on the sows. The farm has for some time used a milk cup system that allowed the weaners to give mum a break, but the manual mix system relied on staff continuing to top it up and meant that it was often cold and unpalatable.

After another visit to Europe, the farm has now added an Automix function that means whenever a weaner sucks from the milk cup, the machinery automatically mixes up one litre of fresh, warm, nutritionally balanced supplement. “It’s a bit too early to make predictions, but the last time dad took a load of weaners up to Norfolk Richard said he’d never seen young pigs like it,” Jack commented.

“If you can get them off to a good start, you’re likely to see a better margin at the end,” Jack said. “It’s much the same as with oilseed rape.”

Photos: ©Martin Apps, Countrywide Photographic