27 November 1998

Agronomic management boosts margins

AS most arable profits plummet one college unit has boosted margins by up to 25% in three years. A rotation re-build, tighter timings and maximising output has made the turn-around possible.

In 1995 Moulton College in Northants had a haphazard rotation of winter cereals and oilseed rape, plus spring wheat and rape. It was not performing and strategic agronomic advice was called in.

"It was not a structured rotational policy," says Axient consultant Matthew Hague. The first changes he suggested were to match crops to the sandy-loam and clay-loam soils. "Spring oilseed rape just didnt pay. Nor did 7ha of potatoes on light land without irrigation."

Both crops were dropped and winter oats introduced as a break that suited both the heavy and light soils. Increasing the winter rape area has eliminated barley and means nearly all first wheats.

Autumn workload is up, but a well motivated workforce means crops are established in good time. Drilling the 200ha (500 acre) arable area finished with a trial field of winter beans on Oct 19 this autumn.

Correct timing is also critical when spraying to get the most cost-effective fungicide and herbicide programmes. "By getting the timing right we can put reduced rates on and are not so reliant on curative action. We hit difficult grassweeds hard when they are small."

New farm manager Mark Robins echoes this timeliness philosophy. "I reckon to do everything as if it is going to rain tomorrow. That may mean starting spraying at 4.30am and filling in at lunchtimes."

Mr Hague does not work to a strict budget on sprays. "We look at each input as we go through the year and assess the potential return from each field." Costs have been cut by using a chemical buying group. But output gains have added most to margins, sales being made through Viking Cereals long pool.

Home-saving wheat and oilseed rape seed this year will shave £14 and £20/ha respectively off 1999 harvest costs. "We have been selec- tive with fields for seed because of cleavers," notes Mr Hague.

Seed rates are also driven down where earlier drilling gives better establishment. This autumn 150-200kg/ha (1.2-1.6cwt/acre) of wheat and 100-125kg/ha (0.8-1.0 cwt/acre) of oats were planted, aiming for a maximum of 250 plants per sq m in the spring. &#42


&#8226 Rotation re-write.

&#8226 Tight control on timeliness.

&#8226 Targeted spend not cost-cuts.

&#8226 Cultivations next objective.

Moulton GMMovement (£/ha)

Crop 94/95 (t/ha) 98 (t/ha) Ave margin % increase

WWt 654 5.51 820 9.22 +25%

W.Osr 666 2.46 590 3.49 -11%

W.Bly 534 –

W.Oats 604 6.92 +13%