This time of year I spend a lot of time in the office looking at figures and costs for the last cropping year as well as this one, as most farmers do. I see this as a vital part of the farming year, just as important as planting, harvesting and selling the crop!

Benchmarking has enabled me to get a much clearer idea of our cost of production per ha and per tonne and I look at our benchmarking meetings as some of the most important in the year. We have been benchmarking in a group with local farmers for three years or so using AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds’ old Cropbench programme and now the new version, Cropbench+, and now it is being integrated into the Monitor Farm project.

In my opinion, being open and sharing your own costs with likeminded neighbours in a confidential, controlled environment is a great insight into how efficient your business is. The meetings have shown a huge difference in spend on various inputs, and given us all ideas on how and where to make potential savings. It has bolstered my belief in sharing operations with others and helped my drive to expand our machinery and labour joint venture further, and talks with other farmers are going ahead. I am happy that we are saving money on machinery and labour compared with where we were two years ago, but am conscious that we could go a lot further, so I still have work to do.

We are keeping a very close eye on the wheat markets at the moment. As visitors to the next Monitor Farm meeting at the end of the month will find out, we have sold malting barley and beans, but everything else is still in the shed. Historically, we have operated a high risk selling strategy and sold very little forward. This has paid off in some years, such as 2012/13, when our milling wheat was sold for a generous premium just two weeks before the combine rolled out, but not in others. This year everything we have sold so far will barely have broken even so we are still holding out for higher prices on the wheat and barley to compensate. I am very interested to see what the Monitor Farm group does when Jack Watts asks them to ‘virtually’ market our feed wheat that is left in the shed!

Thoughts start turning to cropping for the 2015/16 season this time of year. OSR looks like it may be a struggle if prices stay where they are or fall. Indeed, the produce from the 2014 harvest will struggle to make any money at all due to a less than average yield and a high spend on black-grass control. Spring beans have always been a vital part of our rotation here, but again an average or below average yield means I struggle to see them making much money, although they do have other benefits. The search for that all important, beneficial, money-making, spring break-crop continues!

A few plans are starting to take shape regarding some experiments for the Monitor Farm programme. To this end I wanted to get a really good idea of starting points for things like organic matter, compaction, soil N, amongst others. I have carried out some soil mineral nitrogen (SMN) and organic matter testing, as well as checking P and K status and I will also carry out some compaction mapping both myself and through a third party. With a lot of talk about cover crops and green manure, we will plant some of our own next summer and I would like an idea of how our current system stands up before we start. This is a topic I have my reservations about as I do not think we get the full story of all the costs involved, but I am trying to be open minded.

In the meantime, winter wheat and barley look good so here’s hoping for another ‘tractor-burying’ harvest in 2015!