Down Court Farm

Feature on Kevin Attwood and Down Court Farm featured in South East Farmer February 2008. Written by Malcolm Triggs.

Asking Kevin Attwood whether he is a farmer or a businessman brings a smile. "That depends on when you ask me," he replies. The fact that he likes nothing better than to sit high up in the cab of one of his two Claas 580s on a sunny summer's day, bringing in the crop he has worked so hard to produce, suggests that at heart he is a farmer pure and simple. But his recent investment in the state-of-the-art drying and storage equipment he needs to make sure that he retains control of what he sells - and when – is ample proof that a shrewd business head sits on those farming stock shoulders. Kevin farms as part of F D Attwood and Partners, working with parents Frank and Joan Attwood and brother Michael at Down Court Farm in Doddington and at Cleve Farm in Graveney.

The family firm keeps it simple, growing winter wheat and winter oil seed rape, and is now reaping the benefits of higher world prices after five years of making "next to nothing" on combinable crops. With modern combines increasingly efficient and steady expansion producing larger tonnages that need to be handled more quickly, the Attwoods decided that the time had come to replace the aging drying equipment that served their existing 2,000 tonne store. "Our last serious investment at Down Court Farm was 30 years ago, and with our acreage increasing and yields steadily rising we decided it was time to install a new, more efficient and bigger continuous flow dryer," said Kevin.

The new Law-Denis dryer can handle 40 tonnes an hour, reducing the moisture content of the crop by five per cent and more closely matching the speed at which the combines can take the crop off the field. With phase one complete and the new dryer up and running, Kevin turned to Scorpion Engineering for the massive new store that was to make up phase two. The result is a 5,000 tonne store that could double as an aircraft hanger and has given the Attwood operation complete flexibility over drying, storing and marketing its grain. The store is 54 metres long by 29 metres wide, with an extra 10-metre lean-to on one side. The galvanised steel framed building has a flat concrete floor and virtually indestructible concrete panel walling and is tall enough to allow an articulated lorry to tip its trailer inside the store.

"When you are moving these quantities of grain over the distances we operate you need lorries, not trailers, and it wouldn't be the first time someone had tipped an artic trailer and punched a hole straight through the roof," Kevin chuckled. That simply won't be a problem in the new Attwood store, an impressive facility for an on-farm unit. The total cost of the scheme, including the concrete work by Torran Construction, the electrics by BMS Electrical and the Parker farm weighbridge came to around £300,000 – a considerable investment on top of the £80,000 dryer a year earlier. Kevin said the contractors had all worked well, but pointed out that after the past few years of rock-bottom grain prices, good work should not come as a surprise. 

"There really shouldn't be any poor performers out there by now," he commented. "With the industry being hit as hard as cereal farming has been, only the best have come through it." For those who have "come through it", the future is looking bright, with forward wheat prices edging above £150 a tonne and oilseed above £310 for autumn 2008. "Hopefully this is a permanent shift in values rather than a short-term blip, as the other side of the equation is a rapid rise in some input prices," Kevin commented. What the new store has given him is control over how and when he markets the crop. He estimates that he sells an average of 1,000 tonnes of grain a month - "but exactly how much and when I sell is a matter of judgment, and that's where being able to dry it efficiently and store as much as I like makes all the difference by removing any pressure for harvest movement.

"With the United States steadily switching more and more land into maize production for bio-fuel, a succession of droughts hitting the Australian crop and the Chinese demand for a new diet continuing to increase demand for cereal, investing in marketing flexibility looks like a good move. And for Kevin, the investment is not yet complete. Phase three of his ambitious plan involves connecting the new continuous flow dryer, which currently serves the original 2,000 tonne grain store, to the new store. Conditioning the grain is another important consideration for the Attwood concern. The new building is supplied with Lishman low volume grain pedestals to ensure that once dry – or if it has simply been harvested on a hot day - the grain can quickly be brought down to a cool enough temperature for storing. 

It's not just about being able to store larger quantities of the crop but about keeping it in the best possible condition."