Farming for the environment can be just as profitable as farming combinable crops, according to experts at Cereals 2009.

A new series of RSPB guides, produced in conjunction with Smiths Gore, compare the profitability of a range of combinable crops with some of the main arable stewardship options in a bid to show that Entry Level Stewardship payments fully compensate for the income lost when arable land is taken out of production.

“With ELS agreements coming up for renewal soon, our aim is to make sure as many farmers renew as possible,” said Richard Winspear, agricultural adviser for the RSPB. “These guides show that farmers can operate in a way that promotes wild bird populations without hurting the bottom line.”

There are five separate guides covering the economic impact of over-wintered stubbles, flower-rich margins, wild bird seed mixtures, nectar flower mixtures and skylark plots (see example below).

“While the loss of management plans from the new ELS points system means it will need a bit more planning to reach the points requirement, it is still worth being in ELS,” added Giles Cooper from Suffolk-based consultants Wilson Wraight.

The firm has carried out a similar costing analysis for a typical 300ha arable farm currently in ELS. It showed that farm net margin under the new ELS (without management plans) fell to £204/ha, from £223/ha under the old ELS, as more land was taken out of production to meet the points requirement. But, that £204/ha was still £15/ha better than not being in the ELS at all, where farm net margin was estimated to be £189/ha.

It acknowledged that for an intensive arable farm with higher value crops, there could be a benefit from not being in ELS, but said the potential net profit was still below the current profitability with the existing ELS; £260/ha without ELS, compared with £285/ha with the current ELS.

Example RSPB/ Smiths Gore costing

£/ha Winter wheat Nectar flower mix
Crop income 1020  
ELS income   450
Variable costs 420 93
Fixed cost savings   295
Net margin 600 652
Net margin change   52

Assumptions:

  • Assumes mixture lasts full five years
  • Winter wheat yield: 8.5 t/ ha, value: £120/tonne
  • Nectar Flower Mixture – variable costs spread over 5 years: seed: £95, establishment: £99, cutting half in June and whole in Sept – Oct annually @ £30/ha: £225, 1-hour knapsack spray injurious weeds: £9

At present the RSPB/ Smiths Gore guides only compare individual areas of crop and do not yet relate to a whole farm strategy. “The next stage is to look at a whole farm model and demonstrate how a series of these measures can be implemented to give real benefit to the farmland bird population,” said Jason Beedell, head of research at Smiths Gore.

An online calculator for working out the cost of environmental measures is available at www.smithsgore.co.uk/publications