2 November 2001

Commodity price crash leads to radical rethink

WHEN commodity prices nose-dived earlier this year farm management company Velcourt set out to overhaul the establishment system on two key farming businesses it manages in the south-east.

Langdon Court Farms 1000ha unit near Dover had been with Velcourt since 1977 and Haywarden Farms 1300ha near Canterbury since 1986.

"With wheat at £60/t we lose money, at £65/t we break even and at anything above £70/t we start making a profit," says Roger Waite, Velcourts farms director for the south-east.

So lower than expected prices meant a radical rethink, resulting in changes that have reduced costs dramatically, adding £52/ha to the bottom line.

Landowners were not difficult to convince. "Once they had seen the figures, it was not difficult to get them to accept the changes we proposed. Indirect costs – labour, machinery, fuel, power, depreciation and contract work – have been reduced from £289 to just £237/ha. The £52/ha or 18% saving benefits the bottom line directly, where it obviously has a great impact on actual profitability."

When considering possible changes, Langdon Court manager Ted Vipond and Haywarden Farms manager Andrew Cullinane quizzed 15 fellow managers through Velcourts south-east management forum. Details of the businesses were sent to all managers who had to devise a strategy to cut costs, without hitting production.

"The schemes presented were different, but had a common thread," says Mr Waite. "Everyone realised we could no longer justify separate cultivations systems on each block of land and that sharing more productive machinery would play an important role."

In previous years a non-plough system had been favoured on about a third of the land, usually following peas and beans. At Langdon Farms it involved one pass with a 3.5m-wide set of Parmiter discs working in combination with a single press behind a 170hp CaseIH Maxxum.

Where necessary the land was then sub-soiled using a five-leg unit behind a 170hp Maxxum, before a second pass with the discs/press.

After tramlines and headland compaction had been removed by sub-soiling, the remaining 70% of the land was ploughed using a six-furrow Lemken reversible pulled by a 170hp Maxxum.

In both cases a 4m power harrow-mounted drill was used. But that lacked output, its Suffolk coulters were unable to cope with surface trash and the unit was approaching the end of its useful working life.

"Having just signed a new long-term agreement with one of the landowners, it made sense to review our long-term machinery policy with a view to taking cost out of the business," says Mr Waite.

The team identified Vaderstads Rapid 400F as the drill of choice, largely because of its ability to cope with a wide range of soil types, from puffy chalky loam to clay cap, as well as stones and flint.

It can also work directly on ploughed land or as part of a minimum tillage operation, its disc coulters cope with surface trash, it holds a true line behind the tractor, even on relatively steep hillsides, and it places seed accurately in the row and at a consistent depth.

The other key element in the new system is a 6.5m-wide Vaderstad Carrier cultivator/packer, which thoroughly works and firms the top 5-8cm (2-3in) before drilling. Pulled behind a 200hp CaseIH Maxxum at up to 15kmh, it can easily cover 60-70ha day, five times that of the previous discs/packer.

Once land has been cultivated the same tractor pulls the 4m Rapid 400F drill. Working at up to 15kmh it is able to cover 30ha a day, 50-60% more than the old 4m power harrow/drill combination.

The other element in the new high-output system is a seven-furrow Lemken plough with packer, which works behind the other 200hp Maxxum tractor preparing land for second wheats, winter barley and most of the spring-drilled crops.

"The new system allows us to operate with one less 135hp tractor and operator on each of the farms, which had greatly reduced fixed costs," says Mr Vipond.

"Cultivation and drilling outputs have been dramatically increased, which have greatly improved timeliness while maintaining a high level of work quality. A further benefit has been that slug problems caused by hollow seed-beds after ploughing on some of the heavier land have been much reduced." &#42

This 4m Vaderstad Rapid 400F drilled 1423ha of winter wheat, 44ha of winter barley and 387ha of oilseed rape this autumn.

SYSTEMRETHINK

&#8226 Two Kent units, 2300ha.

&#8226 Indirect costs down £52/ha to £237/ha.

&#8226 6.5m Vaderstad Carrier cultivator/packer, 60-70ha/day.

&#8226 4m Vaderstad Rapid 400F drill, 30ha a day.

&#8226 18% boost to bottom line.

&#8226 Helped cope this autumn.

The system change brought big time and cost savings, say Velcourt farm manager Ted Vipond (left) and south-east farms director Roger Waite.