Bespoke to the landowner

Features Posted 18/08/20
Sentry is one of the largest farm management companies operating across the south of the country – and every one of the deals is bespoke to the landowner involved.

Farming brings together a broad range of skills, opportunities and variables – including, of course, the weather – but for Sentry’s Richard Peck, it’s all about relationships.

Sentry is one of the largest farm management companies operating across the south of the country, with sites ranging from two fields to entire landed estates – and every one of the deals is bespoke to the landowner involved.

“We manage a nine hectare ‘farm’ in Dorset and I make sure that the landowner there gets the same level of attention as we give to our other clients,” Richard explained. “We put a great deal of effort into coming up with a deal that suits both Sentry and the landowner. There is no point in proceeding if one half of the partnership is unhappy.”

In the real world, of course, happiness equates to the bottom line, and Sentry knows that it needs to come up with an arrangement that gives the landowner a good return on their investment while also making a return for the company, which was set up in the late seventies and has developed an impressive reputation since then.

In theory, Sentry offers landowners the normal range of options, from farm business tenancies through contract farming – which makes up the bulk of its operation – to management agreements. In practice, its deals are more nuanced, as Richard explained.

“No two deals are exactly the same,” he said. “We spend a long time talking to the landowner about what they want to achieve, how much involvement they need and what level of risk they are looking for. In the end – and it can take a fair amount of negotiation – we come up with a bespoke agreement that meets their specific requirements.”

Sentry succeeds by using the considerable economies of scale that its portfolio generates, as well as by bringing to bear the experience it has amassed over the last 40-plus years of farming a wide range of different sites.

These days it complements that impressive level of knowledge with new wisdom introduced by the likes of Tom Spencer, who manages the Sentry Sussex site which is based at Lock Farm, Partridge Green, south of Horsham, but oversees seven farms and 10 landowners.

At just 27, Tom is promoting and supporting a shift towards direct drilling in a bid to improve the soil, together with increased use of new technology that allows greater efficiency and lower costs.

That focus on new technology comes at a price, of course, which is where Richard plays his part as Sentry’s Head of Purchasing for the group – as well as looking after his own group of Sentry-run farms.

At Lock Farm, where Tom has recently combined two Sentry operations into one, again to create economies of scale and a more efficient operation, the company has been able to review its machinery needs and has invested in brand new kit to support Sentry’s vision of a low impact, direct drill future.

In his purchasing role, Richard has just handed over a John Deere 7290, a Tillso Advantage low disturbance sub-soiler and a John Deere 952i trailed sprayer – together costing somewhere around £250,000.

“At Sentry we believe strongly that we have to continue to invest in order to stay efficient and deliver a good return to the landowners who invite us to manage their land,” said Richard. “If we weren’t efficient, we simply couldn’t do what we do.”

Tom was quick to agree: “You either keep up or you quickly get left behind,” he added.

That need to keep up is particularly true when it comes to technology, which is developing at a remarkable rate and offering a vision of increasing tractor and machinery automation.

Sentry uses John Deere’s impressive GreenStar technology, a system Richard describes simply as “awesome”, for all its precision agriculture.

Tom explained that the system has allowed him to dispense with paper forms detailing what work needs to be done. “The computer in the office sends the job spec to the tractor. Once the driver is in the field, the tractor plots its route according to the GPS and then the sprayer, or whatever else is attached, does whatever it is told to do by the software.

“At the end of the day I know where the tractor went, at what speed, what the engine revs were, how much fuel it used and at what L/ha it consumed it, how much work it did, how many hours it was working, etc. Importantly it gives me an accurate cost for the work the tractor did, and that’s vital business information.” Richard added: “There is already technology that will allow a tractor’s onboard computer to sense that an engine bearing is getting too hot and send a message to the dealer via a satellite link. The dealer will then order the part and have it delivered to the farm so that one of its team can replace the bearing – before the farmer even knows it needs replacing.

“It sounds far-fetched but is already possible – and that kind of preventative maintenance can make all the difference at busy times of year, when a dead tractor sitting in the field can cost a huge amount of money and perhaps mean missing out on a dry spell during harvest.”

The GreenStar systems, looked after by Kris Romney from Burden Bros Agri Ltd, which supplies Sentry’s John Deere tractors and machinery, also talk to Tom’s Gatekeeper crop recording software, again helping to pin down accurate costings.

Tom started at Lock Farm in 2016 as a tractor driver but in January 2019 took over as farm manager when his predecessor moved on. In June this year his operation was combined with another Sentry setup that farmed land at Henfield, Biggin Hill, West Clandon and Ockley to create the larger operation he now looks after.

“Across the group a number of younger farmers have stepped up to the mark and brought a renewed focus on making better use of technology, reducing costs and improving soil structure,” said Richard, who runs a successful and profitable farming business in Dorset as well as overseeing Tom and other Sentry sites in the south of the country and looking after purchasing.

Richard has worked for Sentry since the company, which operates a very flat structure, was set up in the late 70s. As well as Richard, Managing Director Paul Christian, who re-joined Sentry over two years ago, is supported by John Barrett, who looks after the company’s farms in Norfolk, Suffolk and Kent and is responsible for marketing, John Hall, who is responsible for the Cambridgeshire to Leicestershire sites and Robert Kilby, who, in Richard’s words, “sells everything”.

On the ground, the business has a further 20 or so farm managers such as Tom, Sentry is proud to be employee owned, with an employee forum and a direct ownership model for all employees to participate. With a head office in Ipswich, Suffolk, it farms from Leicester to Norwich and down to the south coast, looking after land for everyone from hobby farmers to investors and everything in between.

Tom’s newly expanded operation at Lock Farm now oversees large areas of arable and countryside stewardship land and looks after no fewer than 10 landowners, all of whom will have negotiated the particular arrangement that suits their needs. ”Some have the land as an investment; others are actively involved in the day-to-day business of their farm,” he explained.

Sentry’s economies of scale are impressive, with all the inputs centrally purchased by Richard, who follows market data closely to time the group’s buying and obtain the best prices. “You need good information to get it right and I’m confident that Sentry has information that’s as good as it gets when it comes to seed, fertiliser and sprays,” he said.

In another nod to the importance of relationships, Richard pointed out that over the past 40-plus years the company had worked hard to build up trust across the industry, putting it on a good footing when it came to negotiating effective deals on behalf of its landowners.

Sentry also offers a consultancy service, with a small team based in Ipswich looking after ‘external’ clients who don’t need hands-on help but enjoy benefiting from the company’s experience.

Tom explained that with margins getting tighter, businesses like Sentry Sussex had to look hard at ways to run more efficiently, reducing overheads and using innovation to drive costs down.

Doubling the size of the business at Lock Farm has cut overheads considerably and has also allowed the company to replace two sets of machinery with the new John Deere, sub-soiler and trailed sprayer. “The new kit, allied to the GreenStar technology and the larger land holding, has made the whole operation more efficient,” he explained.

The technology is not just state-of-the-art but continues to evolve, meeting the needs of operators in much the same way that Sentry tries to meet the needs of its clients. “Farmers like us ask ‘why can’t the software do such or such?’ and by the next update you find it can,” he commented.

Meanwhile the combination of GreenStar and Gatekeeper means the company can find out exactly what any field within the business has cost in seed, fertiliser and spray applications, which is not just useful in terms of costing but is very useful for benchmarking and driving continual improvement across the group.

As well as the new tractor, the Tillso Advantage and the John Deere sprayer, Tom has the choice of a Weaving GD disc drill, which offers ultra-low disturbance and can be used for drilling into green cover, or a Triton tine drill which can be used when the ground is wetter. “Having a choice of the two drills means the best of both worlds and fewer compromises,” he commented.

Tom has moved in recent years from minimum tillage to strip tilling and is now switching to direct drilling, which means reduced soil disturbance, less moisture loss and better soil condition in general. It’s part of Sentry’s move towards regenerative agriculture, which aims to reverse the detrimental impacts of past practices on soil condition.

“We have seen a loss of organic material in the soil over the years thanks to excessive cultivation,” he said. “Multi-pass cultivation has harmed the soil, and farms that have been using regenerative methods are seeing a definite improvement in the health of their soil.

“Better sampling is helping to prove how much damage has been done and is showing improvements that are directly related to the new techniques. As well as better soil, these techniques reduce the use of expensive inputs and mean less metal and diesel usage.”

Tom uses organic manures and green compost to increase the carbon stored in the soil, along with chopped straw mixed with organic manures. He is hopeful that environmentally conscious farmers will be rewarded in future with a system of carbon credits to reflect their efforts.

“It’s clear that these new methods are making a difference,” he said. “The soil wants to break up, heavy clay is much easier to work and we are seeing more worm activity. More worms indicate increased nutrients, they take leaf litter down into the soil and the holes they create help it to drain. I really believe that regenerative agriculture is a welcome advancement in farming.”

Photos: ©Martin Apps, Countrywide Photographic

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