Farm Of The Week: Patience in energy crops reaps rewards

IT has been a bumpy road but Chris Bradley is seeing his decision to move into energy crops pay off.

It was 2006 when he decided miscanthus might be the solution for a hundred of his most difficult acres on 250-acre Whinneymoor Farm, near Brough.

Blow-away sand that wouldn’t grow wheat and struggled to deliver seven tonnes a hectare of any cereal has produced an average 14 t/ha of miscanthus for the past two years – meaning just short of £750/ha from Drax power station for a harvesting and baling cost of about £200 a hectare.

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Establishment costs, for a crop which will give for about 20 years before replanting is needed, can be brought down with grant aid to about £1,250 a hectare said Chris at a recent open day. And there is more or less no maintenance required.

He summed up: “The margins are far and away better than the ground could ever generate from the wheat, barley or oilseed rape grown on the rest of the farm. And our contract is linked to the Retail Price Index, so we know the price will increase at least 4.5 per cent for the coming season.”

Energy crops were trickier than they first sounded for a while. Farmers who planted eucalyptus had to watch their young trees die after last year’s freezes.

A miscanthus marketing company went bust in 2009. And in the early days of the crop, Chris Bradley and other pioneering growers suffered poor and uneven establishment. Some ripped out their miscanthus in frustration, while others had to wait as long as four years to get a decent output. Chris became a founder member of national support group Miscanthus Growers Limited when they all felt they needed to huddle together for protection. But the message from MGL now is a positive one.

Lessons have been learned, says Chris. Crops planted in the right way, with top quality rhizomes, will deliver a harvest worth having even in the first year. And demand is out-stripping supply.

He does not want to put all his eggs in one basket but he is confident enough about the progress made to be planning to plant an extra 25 extra acres of the woody grass on some of his heavier ground next spring – using Shropshire-based supplier International Energy Crops, which will supply rhizomes, machinery and expertise, for the establishment costs quoted above. He will expect about five tonnes a hectare from his first cut, in March 2013, and 20 t/ha on maturity, in four or five years.

“Our older crops have filled in quite well over the years,” he said. “In fact we’ve seen clumps growing out by a good four inches a year. But the establishment deficiencies remain for all to see in gappy, uneven crops. The key thing we have all learnt is that you have to establish right. You’re putting it in for 20 years, so it’s worth doing the job properly, especially since patching doesn’t really work after the first year. Unless you replant a whole area, the original crop shades out the new plants, leaving you little better off.”

It is vital, he says, to have fresh rhizomes, rather than the winter-stored ones formerly thought to be adequate. Equally important in his experience is a planting depth that gives the rhizomes sufficient soil cover, together with the best possible soil to seed contact.

He told his Open Day audience: “The quality rhizomes IEC put into a block we replanted last spring weighed an average of 150g against the 50g of the old days. They went in at a consistent four to five inches deep and precision planting meant the clumps came up at a remarkably even 68 cm apart. The extra vigour of the rhizomes and their even depth and spacing has given us a crop that looks set to give us a commercial harvest next March – just a year from planting. The difference from the rest of our area is amazing.”

With fewer gaps, his newer miscanthus plantings may not be as dramatically beneficial for wildlife as his earlier ones. He has seen a big resurgence in lapwing and skylarks and oyster catchers moving in off the Humber to nest. Hares have thrived too, and the extra cover and feeding opportunities given for shrews and voles has noticeably boosted hunting barn owls around the field margins.

To help support wildlife in the new 25-acre block he’ll be leaving a clear ride down the centre. This, added to the obvious advantages of a perennial crop as a habitat, will still give far better support to wildlife populations than is ever possible with annual cropping, he is sure. Add the value of the miscanthus in stabilising his blow-away sand and there is no doubt, he says, that energy cropping can deliver valuable environmental points as well as straight economic returns.

“Although we’ve taken more than a few knocks and blows along the way, miscanthus has really come into its own in the past two years,” said Chris. “With the sort of production expertise we’ve developed through Miscanthus Growers Ltd and suppliers like International Energy Crops, and keen and committed customers like Drax, I can only see it growing in popularity. We have a crop that delivers handsome margins from rolling contracts, guaranteed to increase with the RPI, plus the prospect of even better returns when local pelleting plants are up and running.

“Soil testing shows we’ve maintained our potash indexes and actually increased phosphate levels. My small-scale trialling has revealed no response whatsoever to nitrogen at a good 200 units/acre. We’ve yet to encounter any disease or pest problems. And we’re seeing valuable improvements in soil stability and wildlife populations. What else could deliver all this and an easier life?”

See www.miscanthusgrowers.org or call 01673 860423. Or meet Chris Bradley for a talk and tour 12-2.30 pm on Nov. 29. Meet at the Blackwell Ox in Sutton–on–Forest, York. Call Chris on 07762 893458.