26 November 1999

Advantage to

buyer in sugar beet arena

There are questions over

quota at Hoe Hall as this

years sugar beet crop is

delivered to the factory, and

the deer enterprise has

suffered an unexpected set

back. Simon Wragg reports

IT is a disappointingly wet morning as another wagon pulls into the yard to be loaded with beet destined for British Sugars Bury St Edmunds plant. This seasons yields have been good, but factory returns mean there is little to shout about, says James Keith.

"My grouse is weve grown big beet this year and the top tare is high, effectively giving the buyer a lot more free sugar. The NFU and British Sugar await arbitration to resolve this."

The first area to be lifted covered 23ha (57acres) and yielded 53t/ha (21t/acre). "We had our doubts about the crop to begin with, but it recovered well from a wet seed-bed. Sugars are down 0.8% on last year to 16.3%. We had budgeted for at least 16.8%."

The next 20ha (49acres) is expected to give a higher yield although sugar level is anticipated to be lower at about 16%, he calculates. "We are likely to exceed quota by 25%."

Sugar prices are down world-wide. Mr Keith calculates that returns to growers have fallen from £37/t several years ago to under £28/t this season. With only one buyer controlling the market, there is a question over fair play, he adds. "Insider talk says there is plenty of room for more profit to be squeezed out of the producers due to the monopoly position they enjoy."

These doubts on future returns have tempered enthusiasm to buy in temporary quota from those farms suffering the beet disease, rhizomania. Initial bids were ventured at £5/t but the market rallied to £12/t. "Totally uneconomic in my opinion. Id like to hear from people how, having done the sums, they justify paying it; perhaps theyve not got a calculator, or am I missing a trick?"

Cereals and rape are also being moved out of store and off-farm. A contract for 100t of rape was sold on a flat-rate contract at £115/t, slightly lower than the market price including maximum premium for quality. "It was a way of spreading risk when the quality was unknown," he adds.

By the year end most of the wheat and barley should have also been moved. Some will go to a regional grain group – SEFA – which has announced a proposal to invest in export facilities at the port of Ipswich. "A good move," says Mr Keith.

"Weve been asked for further commitment to the group, but growers should remember we are not asked for a single penny toward the cost. It should increase marketing opportunities."

Other sale prospects have been hit. A recent trip to Cornwall helped swell deer numbers with the purchase of 90 hind calves for fattening in yards. "We normally buy these in at 50kg each, but this latest batch were lighter at about 37kg.

"At that weight it looks like they have suffered with weaning, transport and switch of diet. Several have been diagnosed with yersinosis, a stress-related illness. It can be inherent and sub-clinical signs often go unnoticed."

That has seen eight calves taken out of the unit – some for veterinary inspection- and has added significantly to costs. "As a result, any income is likely to be marginal on such a small unit," explains Mr Keith.

The remaining healthy calves are being fed on a daily ration of 1-1.5kg a head of a 16% concentrate pellet and adlib straw. Hinds are sold weighing 100kg alive with values at £3/kg deadweight. "Venison is suffering from too big a price spread between pig and poultry meat at one end, beef and lamb in the middle, and then venison."

Better prospects appear to be in store for organic pigs. Early batches of finished stock have almost met target carcass weights of 65kg each and fat probes have been encouraging at 11mm. However, pigs are taking longer to reach slaughter weight than expected. "We need to tweak the finisher ration to get more into the carcass."

The concern over longer weaning times, currently seven weeks, has been compensated by better-than-expected litter size averaging 13 piglets at second parity, almost too many for each sow. Unit manager Mark Codham is busy cross-fostering, but with very few to foster to.

"We are also having to use guile rather than brawn to outwit finished stock to get them up the loading ramps; theyre simply not afraid of the staff," explains Mr Keith. Moving feed hoppers nearer the loading area has helped.

One recent bit of good news is that the units run from Hoe Hall have been accepted into the Countryside Stewardship scheme. This, believes Mr Keith, should benefit the business financially, and assist efforts to rebuild English partridge stocks as well.

"The amount of work involved does seem daunting to the already stretched workforce. However, careful planning will be needed to dovetail with the arable and stock work we already have."

FARMFACTS

&#8226 Swanton Morley Farms, based near Dereham, Norfolk, is a 890ha (2200 acres) largely arable unit managed as a family partnership by James Keith, his wife, Victoria, and mother, Penelope.

&#8226 Arable crops cover 90% of the unit. Wheat grown on medium sandy loam soil goes as feed. Barley goes for malting. Sugar beet is also grown. A further 182ha (450 acres) is contract farmed locally.

&#8226 There are two outdoor pig herds; 550-sow conventional and 140-sow organic. Growers are taken to bacon weight in straw yards. A 26-cow suckler herd grazes parkland. Red deer calves are also finished.

&#8226 A number of cottages are let.

&#8226 Farm staff of 12.