Farm of the Week: Arable armoury developed over years of practice

Richard Burniston, of North End Farm, Long Marston, in a field of sugar beet.  Picture: James Hardisty
Richard Burniston, of North End Farm, Long Marston, in a field of sugar beet. Picture: James Hardisty
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The Battle of Marston Moor took place on July 2, 1644 and is reputed to have been the largest fought on English soil but today on the same land it is a war being waged against blackgrass to keep the seedbeds productive that is raging.

Richard Burniston of North End Farm, on the edge of the village of Long Marston, farms 400 acres, most of which is owned and runs a successful agricultural contracting business that was started by his grandfather Arthur Burniston in 1943 when he was farming at Bickerton Grange nearer to Wetherby.

Richard is also one of the few remaining sugar beet growers in the area following the closure of the York sugar factory ten years ago.

Arthur’s two sons Richard (Richard’s father) and Joe were both involved with the contracting business and today it is Richard and nephew Edward Watson, his sister Pat’s son, who are at the helm. They have a customer base of around 50 farms. Their overall acreage worked including North End Farm now runs to around 1,500 acres and they use two combine harvesters - a Claas Lexion 570 and a Deutz 6090.

Blackgrass has affected thousands of farms and while Richard tells of cereal harvest being easier this year and of good results on wheat and barley yields he’s not taking his eye off one weed that has caused sleepless nights for arable growers in the past decade.

“We had a serious patch of blackgrass in a field about five or six years ago and managed to control it immediately by spraying it off. In some cases we haven’t had a recurrence but in others we are still trying to get rid. You cannot just hope it will go as blackgrass will take over and then there will be a serious problem.

“We’re trying to wipe it out as best we can with the blueprint that spray companies have advised in using a pre-emergence spray followed by leading brands such as Avodex and Atlantis, but this all adds to the crop cost.”

One of Richard’s current weapons is spring barley.

“What we’re trying is to create a seedbed where blackgrass will grow after harvest in summer and then we aim to take it out before sowing spring barley. We have tried spring beans but that hasn’t worked as the beans couldn’t kill it.”

Sugar beet harvesting is a speciality that Richard has had in his contracting armoury for a number of years, but aside from his own acreage he’s now one of very few growers north of the A64. He has a contract to supply 3,000 tonnes a year to the Newark factory some 72 miles away.

“I like growing sugar beet and we have the knowledge, machinery and type of lighter land that suits the crop. We grow the highest possible yielders across around 100 acres. There is also a good stock feed market for beet so I don’t mind adding a few more acres to meet that demand.”

While Richard’s sugar beet harvest has yet to get underway he’s been a lot happier with the gathering of this year’s cereal crops than he was in 2015.

“We’re as satisfied as we can be with the leading of grain as we were up to date when the showers came and we haven’t damaged the land as soil conditions were dry. That has enabled us to get crops sown in good condition and quality seedbeds. All being well that puts us in decent shape at present for next year’s harvest, but there’s a long way to go.

“Last year we started off with six inches of rain in August and the weather seemed against us most of the way especially at Christmas and New Year when a lot of other farmers suffered far worse.”

Richard’s land ranges from blue clay to sandy and gravelly loam, which means he has effectively two types of rotation.

“Our farming operation at Long Marston runs in a long narrow band about two fields wide going from here at the north end across the top of Marston Moor and to the village. We also have fields at Poppleton and Knapton.

“When dad was alive he tried to improve the drainage as we’re only about 20ft above sea level apart from Marston Moor, which isn’t that much higher, and we still work on getting at least 10 acres of heavy land better drained every year. It is paying off with better crops, less standing water and more working days now available.

“On the heavy land we go for two or sometimes three wheats followed by barley and now beans in keeping with the new European legislation on payments through ‘greening’.

“Our lighter land rotation includes sugar beet, wheat, spring barley and winter barley. We usually run winter barley before sugar beet so that we can put in stubble turnips. The sheep then come in to eat them off before we put in the sugar beet.

“We’ve sown just over 200 acres of winter wheat this time using the varieties Lilli and Knightsbridge. Lilli yielded four tonnes per acre this harvest and is a milling wheat that we might get away for biscuit. Knightsbridge is new for us and we’ve sown around 37 acres. Cassia is our current favourite winter barley. It works well in both light and heavy soil. We’ve sown about 100 acres.

“As a result of the weather we ended up growing around 130 acres of spring barley this year. We’re sticking with Propino and normally grow around 30 acres. Our beans crop runs to 30 acres but the demand for human consumption with them going to Egypt doesn’t seem as great this time.”

Richard and Edward’s team includes Allan Davy who is due to retire next year when he will have been with the business for 47 years.

“Allan has been with me since he was 18-years-old and drives the Lexion. His son Richard is also here. We have a great team.”

Richard’s father bought North End Farm in the mid-60s and the family, including his parents Richard and Madge, who is still a partner today, and sister Pat moved to the farm in 1968.

Pat is married to farmer Ian Watson of Cowthorpe.