17 May 2002

Promising crops, dire prices

Good-looking crops are

giving most of farmers

weeklys barometer farmers

a warmer feel, despite the

prospect of low prices.

Andrew Blake reports

ENCOURAGING stands of winter cereals, mainly well established spring crops and easy potato planting mean most of our regional representatives are more upbeat than a year ago.

But rock-bottom commodity prices and marketing uncertainties are never far from their thoughts, and chilly weather in the east has been particularly depressing.

"You cant help being optimistic when you have good crops," says Somersets Chris Salisbury, who is confident of beating his 7.5t/ha (3t/acre) average wheat yield.

"At least they give you scope, and things should certainly be better than last years double whammy of low yields and prices."

Failed December-sown oats and take-all hit wheat on recently acquired land with an unknown history are his sole disappointments.

Only in Essex, where Peter Wombwells peas and sugar beet have struggled in cold, dry conditions, is the mood more downbeat. "Winter cereals are fine, but we have had to redrill 10 acres of beet and the peas are desperately slow." Several neighbours have also resown sugar beet, he notes.

Fortunes could hardly be worse than last season in the west and north where Sandy Walker and Catherine Thompson had hardly any winter cereals because of the autumn 2000 wash-out.

Mrs Thompson, Mr Salisbury and Northern Irelands Robert Craig are all partially buffered against low prices by having livestock to make good use of their own grain.

Indeed whole-crop silage enthusiast Mr Craig says his optimism ratings (see chart) would be far lower were Carse Hall an all-arable unit.

Mr Salisbury regularly feeds about 200t a year of rolled wheat to his dairy cows as well as 10-20ha of whole-crop. "I might raise that to 300t this year with a urea or caustic treatment."

At Holme House, where at least 75% of Mrs Thompsons cereals are used in her pig unit, Claire wheat on heavy land is especially promising. But she expects Aprils dry weather has taken its toll on over-thick winter barley, which failed to pick up applied nitrogen in time.

But the dry spell could permit herbicide cuts on her potatoes and has not adversely affected sugar beet sown into moisture.

At Ercall Park, where Mr Walker had to start irrigating potatoes last week, six weeks with only 30mm (1.2in) of rain is beginning to cause concern on his lighter land.

He fears most for his October sowings after potatoes. "Bearing in mind the previous autumn, we pushed on in conditions when we probably should not have. But our early-drilled wheats could do well because they have their roots down."

Despite rather too much recent rain, spring peas and barley in Surrey look really well, says Simon Porter. "Our first winter wheats have good potential." But second crops sown after the weather broke are less encouraging. "You have to remember we had it wetter here last autumn than the year before."

Sunshine, as always, will be the key to good yields in Scotland, says Robert Ramsay. "The foundation blocks are there for good yields. I am quite happy with the state of our crops, but not the prices. There is very little disease in our wheat. Barleys are as clean as a whistle and I see no reason why they should not yield like stink."

"Very good" is how William Hemus rates his Warks winter wheat. "The populations seem about right, disease levels are not high and most of our weed control programmes have worked well." He dismisses fears that "luxury" N uptake may cause more than usual lodging.

For his 20ha (50 acres) of potatoes, 45% on contract, nearly everything depends on how well they go into store, he says.

Robert Craigs whole crop silage eases the pain of low cereal prices, but Peter Wombwell feels he might be better off learning a new trade.

Better off as a bricklayer?

BEYOND the livestock-feeding factor, reactions to low grain prices vary.

With wheat as low as £54/t Peter Wombwell is resisting selling anything other than his contracted oilseed rape and maybe some malting barley at harvest. "It makes you wonder whether I would be better off training to be a brickie. I gather they can get £70,000 a year in London."

Earlier reorganisation leaving his business "cash-positive" means Mr Porter is not pressured into selling wheat for some time. "I am ignoring prices for the moment."

With several mills closing and the prospect of haulage costs to the east increasing, "diabolical" prices for next harvest make the future for all-combinable crop farms in the south-west grim, says Mr Salisbury.

"I am just glad I sold some wheat forward last year for next November delivery at the then appalling price of £67-70/t."

Initially cynical about Scottish Quality Cereals traceability value, Mr Ramsay increasingly believes it is helping stem Baltic imports. "We have also seen a reasonable downturn in input prices and the fight-back by fertiliser manufacturers has been resisted fairly well."

In the light of Viking Cereals woes it is becoming much harder to know how best to market grain, says Mr Hemus. "The question is who should you listen to? I still prefer to lose my own money." Having plenty of seed contracts takes some of the sting out of the exercise if costs are kept under control, he adds. &#42


Barometer farmer prospects compared with last year.

2002 2001

Robert Craig ******** *******

Robert

Ramsay ******* ****

Simon Porter ****** *******

Chris Salisbury ****** ***

William Hemus ***** **

Sandy Walker ***** *

Catherine

Thompson **** *

Peter

Wombwell ** *******

NB: The more stars on 1-10 scale the better.