FOR CLIVE Weir, the single farm payment looks set to help in his plans to expand still further his rapidly growing arable business. It should encourage more non-farming landowners to seek someone to grow crops on their behalf, he believes.

Initially a dedicated poultry producer at Cabra House near Hillsborough, Mr Weir”s move into combinable cropping began in 1996. The spur was the need to find a home for manure from 110,000 laying hens, an enterprise started by his father in 1967, he says. “We were having to cart it up to 25 miles just to get rid of it, and getting nothing for it.” It was a neighbour”s offer of 6.5ha (16 acres) to grow wheat on a share-farming basis that set him on the arable path. Today, he crops 890ha (2200 acres) in the province and 162ha (400 acres) taken on 100 miles away in Eire last season. Most of this is on blocks of land contract-farmed or rented under Eire”s Conacre system, operations in the north extending over a radius of 21 miles. Poultry numbers have been trimmed to 50,000.

Despite having only one written contract, Mr Weir is unfazed. “They are nearly all verbal agreements, but that”s no worry. I work on the basis that if you are straight with me, I”ll be straight with you.”

As the area increased over the years, it became obvious that relying on contractors was no longer economically viable. “We realised that we had to do the work ourselves.”

That has led to steadily increasing investment in machinery and a full-time arable team of three. “We spent 120,000 alone this year on fixed equipment for grain drying.”

The biggest of five tractors is a 330hp Fendt, the rest being more favoured John Deeres for which the local service is particularly sound, he points out.

Two Lexion combines, a 470 and a 570, are serviced at harvest by five 25t six-wheeled grain carts.

A lorry is used to shift tackle to the Eire unit. “I have just gained my full haulage licence, which should help if we want to transport goods for other people,” says Mr Weir.

Minimum tillage is fast replacing the plough, mainly to speed establishment, and a new 6m Moore Unidrill is on order. Anticipating SFP-inspired moves, the line-up could cope with 400ha (1000 acres) more, he estimates.

Feed wheat, with yields enhanced by heavy manure use, for two pig-producing customers is the main crop. This season he will have 324ha (800 acres).

One advantage is that he can supply them directly at a discount to the other main potential and near-monopoly supplier based at the local docks, he explains. Their price this month is about 85/t.

Another benefit is that local monthly sales ease cashflow, which pleases the bank manager, he adds. “We”re averaging 4.5t/acre.”

Much of that is due to the technical support of Alastair Moore of Nickerson Seeds and local crop consultant Bobby McCoy, he acknowledges. “We really want to see that sort of yield with the prices of 2003.”

Other crops are winter barley, including hybrid Colossus, oilseed rape and winter beans. Spring rape often performs as well as the winter crop, he says.

“With the SFP I think more people will be willing to offer five-year contracts which should give us a better guarantee of continuity.”

[cap for digi pic in Feb 11 folder: NI barometer 2005.jpg}