26 November 1999

Establishment review leads to labour savings

farmers weeklys barometer

grower in Northern Ireland is

drilled up and on schedule

with autumn applications.

Andrew Swallow reviews

some significant changes

HARSH financial facts have forced Northern Ireland barometer grower Graham Furey to ring the changes at Castleview this Autumn.

A new power-harrow/drill combination has been bought, and the gap-year student has not been replaced on the Co Down farm. "I am not sure which decision came first: Replacing the drill, or deciding not to replace the student," he says.

Cutting out the full-time student placement will save £7000 a year in wages, plus board and lodging. While seasonal labour will still be needed at harvest, switching from a separate power-harrow and Accord drill to the new 3m Farm-Force and Amazone combination means establishment is now a one-man operation. Ploughing has been contracted out for a number of years.

The new set-up caught Mr Fureys eye at Balmorel show, last May, and a deal was done at Cereals 99. After trading in the 4m Accord against the new combination unit, including a 1.5m front mounted press, the bill came to £7000.

"Even allowing for extra seasonal labour, we should save that in a year-and-a-half without a full-time student," he calculates.

Farm-Force spent a day on the farm getting the new rig set up, and Mr Furey is enthusiastic after finishing his first autumn campaign with the machine. "I have been able to keep up with the plough no problem, and had time to do other jobs. The time saving is tremendous."

Work-rate of about 1 ha/hour (2.5 acres/hour) with the combination unit compares with 1.5 ha/hour (3.7acres/hour) with the student driven power-harrow and 1.7 ha/hour (4.2 acres/hour) with Mr Furey following on the Accord drill. That works out at 15mins/ha more, or 25% longer with the old system. A larger, 1t seed-hopper on the Farm-Force machine helps. "I can do a days drilling with only one fill-up," he says. Fuel consumption is at least a third less than the two tractors combined, and a trial with a 0.5t seed-bag proved no problem. All seed will be ordered in the large bags next year, if possible, he adds.

Seed-rates, at about 140kg/ha (9 stones/acre) from the Oct 5 start to drilling, rising to 185kg/ha (12 stones/acre) by the Nov 3 finish, were unaltered this year. But there is scope for savings in future, he believes.

"We bought quite a bit of over-wintered seed this year, which saved us £70/t itself, so I was reluctant to experiment, especially with the new set-up. But seeing the job it has done, we may have a go with a bit less seed next year."

Home-saving seed is ruled out for the moment due to lack of storage and concerns over weed-seeds. "But the saving would be pretty big for us. We have to pay £270-£300/t for seed over here," he says.

Second-hand dual-wheels, front and back, spread the weight of the new set-up, and a pass with a 6m set of rolls on demonstration, again with dual wheels, has left seed-beds nicely consolidated. "We might just have to buy the rolls to complete the system."

Autumn herbicide spraying began in good time on early drilled crops, immediately after drilling was finished. Most will get 2.5 litres/ha of ipu plus 1.7 litres/ha of trifluralin with 0.1 litres/ha of Hallmark (lambda-cyhalothrin) for aphid control. Where broadleaved weeds are more of a concern, diflufenican (as in Cougar) replaces the trifluralin, and some chlorotoluron left over from last autumn is being used up on wheat following oats.

Compound fertiliser is on the yard, and will go on after spraying if the weather stays dry. Straights were tried, and dropped, a number of years ago as they required an extra pass over the land.

Up to four years ago soil-testing was free from the Department of Agriculture, Northern Ireland, but now the only fields tested are those let for potatoes, and that is done by the incoming grower. "It is one of the bonuses of potato lets," he says.

The labour change has also gone down well with his wife and three children, aged 10-14 years. "Not having a student in the house has made a big difference to family life," he says.

DRILL FOR LABOUR SWAP

&#8226 Student labour cut out.

&#8226 Power-harrow/drill combination bought.

&#8226 Fuel-saving bonus.

&#8226 Drilled up by Nov 3.

Finance pressure

For the second year running, Graham Furey recorded a loss at his financial year end in March.

Ways to turn the business around are proving hard to find. "I cant see a way to farm out of it," he says. "We have bought a machine to lose labour, and sold cattle, but the overdraft has not come down."

Expanding to spread fixed costs is not on, as annual rents are being forced up by vegetable growers.

"We have lost about 50 acres in the past two years. The veg men are giving twice what we can on cereals. I reckon to pay the equivalent of a tonne of grain in rent," he says. His accountant suggested cutting out rented ground and going contracting. "But will you get paid?" asks Mr Furey.

Other diversification opportunities are limited, and Mr Furey is not keen on dealing direct with the public. Reluctantly, selling some land is being considered to clear the overdraft. "It is making £5000-£6000/acre. We would not have to sell much," he says.

That price is for standard arable ground. "But it is not farmers buying," he adds.