As ever, growers are always looking to find new opportunities within their businesses, adding value, spreading risk and reducing costs. Be it a livestock farm looking to add value within its forage crop area, or an arable unit looking for alternative break crop options, the range of seed production contracts on offer may just be the answer.

In addition to its well-established combinable seeds business, T Denne & Sons, based at two sites near Ashford, has developed its specialist seeds contracting business over the past decade into what is now a significant part of the company’s activities.

“Our increased area of contracted grass seeds, specialist legumes and forage brassica seeds has allowed us to invest in significant extra processing capacity, warehousing and develop our fieldsman service to support growers and their on-farm agronomists,” said Fred Denne. “Our strong on farm presence and the important relationships we enjoy with key plant breeders allows us to pull together all aspects of production and processing required for high quality seed production.”

Grass seed production in the UK fell away significantly during the 1990s, with most breeders using continental growers. During the early 2000s interest began to grow again for UK production, as overall demand grew and competition from wheat for seed production intensified. On the back of this renewed interest, T Denne & Sons has gradually built a large group of long-term growers throughout the South East.

“To offer a range of options to growers, and also to help manage market changes, we contract all agricultural ryegrass types, (perennials, hybrids and Italians) plus amenity species, especially dwarf ryegrasses, for which there seems almost insatiable demand at present,” said Andrew Bourne of T Denne & Sons. “Partnerships, particularly with Barenbrug UK and RAGT UK, give us access to many of the key recommended grass varieties used both in the UK and across Europe. These partnerships allow us to make our variety offer to growers both long term and up to date with new varieties coming to market.”

With farm incomes under pressure (removal of subsidy support/input cost inflation) and the need for alternative break crops on arable units, grass seed production can add a new dimension to rotations. Grass seed crops bring an obvious additional income stream for livestock/mixed farms, but for an arable unit it can offer opportunities to cooperate with neighbours with a forage requirement.

“The advice around species/variety selection, field suitability, crop management and commercial contracts is so important,” commented Pat Goode,

T Denne & Sons primary “fieldsman” link with growers and their BASIS agronomists on farm. “If you get the fundamentals right at the beginning, then the chances of a successful outcome are massively increased. Decisions around timing of inputs, crop management prior to “shutting up” for seed production, crop harvesting options as well as seed conditioning in store are all major considerations, with the range of grass types bringing their own specialist needs.”

One of the most positive impacts on T Denne & Sons business has been the decision to invest in the additional specialist grass seed processing capacity at Whitehill, near Ashford. “The need to deal with greater volumes of seed, plus the demands of the current market to supply “new crop” seeds faster than before made the need for the investment very clear,” said Andrew Bourne. “It also sends a strong message to growers and breeders alike that we have made a long-term commitment to seed production.”

Much of the time spent with growers is making sure that everyone has an understanding of the long-term grass seed market, and what trends and market forces are likely to affect values to growers. “With many of the contracts offered being two-year terms (though some are one or three year), market information is crucial when making decisions that will potentially affect income for the next three years,” said Andrew. “The combination of marketing information from breeders, medium term trends in consumption and the suitability of available varieties are all key. Also, our involvement in selling grass seeds, bespoke environmental seeds mixtures and forage brassicas to farmer consumers gives us a clear view of what the market is telling us.”

A key breeder partner of T Denne & Sons, Barenbrug UK, part of the Royal Barenbrug Group, has been breeding and producing grass for farmers and turf managers for over 110 years. Barenbrug Seed Production Manager Richard Turner explained: “Working with over 55 farmers across the UK, to produce grass for British farmers, we really see the value of working with recognised and reliable partners to support them to help deliver new value to their farm. Many of the growers we work with are arable farmers using the opportunity to have a cash crop of grass as a valuable break crop among their cereal rotations, or a way to introduce livestock onto their farm.”

On the relationship, Richard added: “T Denne & Sons are an excellent partner to work with to help farmers secure, deliver and bring new benefits to their farm with trusted support from both mine and the T Denne & Sons team. Our longstanding relationship continues to grow, and we are always looking for new growers to meet the increasing demands for UK grown and produced sustainable grass seed for British farmers and turf managers.”

Grower comment
Ross Fitzpatrick, Farms Manager, St Nicholas Court Farms, Kent:

“At St Nicholas Court Farms we’ve been growing Hybrid Ryegrass for seed since 2019. Current cropping consists of 145ha split between two varieties, RGT Kirial and Barenbrug Barclamp.

“Grass seed production has some real benefits to our business, providing an extra break crop option in the rotation. The silage crop is harvested in the first week of May, used as feedstock for our AD plant. Leading onto the first seed crop ready for combining around mid-July, the early harvest slot helps spread the workload of our combine and importantly doesn’t disrupt the wheat harvest.

“Once the crop is harvested, it’s dried using a drying floor system, then the crop is moved to a holding store until called for processing. Once the seed is processed, any screenings produced are returned to our AD site and used as a feedstock, completing full utilisation of the produced crop.

“We’re growing the crop as a two-year ley; this brings added value such as no establishment costs in year two and options of overwinter grazing of livestock returning some organic matter to soils. After harvest in year two the ground is available for early summer cultivations preparing for winter wheat as the following crop.”

Key breeder partner

Another of T Denne & Sons key breeder partners is RAGT UK, contracting major hybrid and Italian ryegrass areas. David Ramdhian, Head of Forage Seeds in UK and Europe, is responsible for seed multiplication and sales of all forage products. “The importance of UK production to the broader European grass seed market continues to grow. Availability of suitable land and quality growers is finite, but demand remains fundamentally firm. As breeders our role is to develop top end varieties and position them in the market, but this is all in vain if we cannot access the right growers and get production contracts in place. This is what makes our relationship with T Denne & Sons and their growers so important to us,” said David. “Taking a long-term view is key for our business, making our cooperation with T Denne & Sons crucial going forward.”

The UK remains less than 50% self-sufficient in agricultural rye grasses, with greater demands on limited supplies from abroad. As well as the ryegrass market, there is constant demand for UK production of tall agricultural fescues, Timothy, all clovers and of course amenity dwarf ryegrasses and fescues.

There also remains strong demand for contract areas of forage brassica (turnips, forage rape, kales, mustards etc) as well as vetches and linseed. “We are actively seeking new quality growers for all species, and with our all-round technical knowledge and commercial experience believe we can offer both new and existing growers a high level of service to allow them to maximise returns,” concluded Fred Denne.

As well as grass, forage and fodder seeds, T Denne & Sons has developed a rapidly growing area of wildflower seed production. While most is from naturally evolved grassland areas, some land has been specifically allocated and established with wildflower mixes to service specific market trends. The picture shows wildflowers being harvested on the North Downs in 2021. Additional suitable areas are being sought.