5 July 2002

Expect the unexpected

Drawing up contingency plans to prevent unnecessary losses

when unexpected events strike is increasingly important.

Andrew Blake reports the views of a leading farm consultant

PLANNING for the unforeseen is all about costs versus reward and theory versus practicality. With margins on a knife-edge they can make the difference between a small profit and a significant loss.

"On most farms there are still plenty of areas worth reviewing to avoid undrilled, unsprayed and unharvested crops," says David Bolton of Andersons the farm business consultants.

Arranging the business to cope fully with extremes, such as autumn 2000 – the wettest for 250 years – is clearly uneconomic.

But work at Reading University suggests growers should aim to be able to manage relatively unscathed in eight years out of 10, says Mr Bolton. "With grain at only £60/t you might have to modify that to only six or seven. Use standard figures adjusted through experience to decide what you need.

"You then have to start looking at what else can be done. One of the biggest risks is if a key member of staff goes sick."

Leaving aside contractors and machinery rings, finding a temporary replacement to step in quickly will be important.

"Most people usually think about bringing in casual labour or students. But there is another source often forgotten – people who have retired or been made redundant and perhaps are now doing something else.

"They generally have the skills needed and are often willing to help out, maybe by taking a week of what would otherwise be holiday."

Have a plan to ensure combining has minimum hiccups, advises Mr Bolton. The negative knock-on effects of delays can be considerable, and eliminating intake bottlenecks is vital.

"A good area of clean dry concrete can help a great deal, and think carefully about the number of grain trailers required to keep the combine moving."

Use otherwise slack spells to service harvesting equipment, he adds. "When cash is tight it is tempting to neglect it, but thats always false economy.

"Make sure you have adequate dealer back-up, if necessary by talking to manufacturers. There are many flexible arrangements worth investigating which can get good machines onto the farm."

Many more growers could usefully get together to harvest crops jointly, he believes. "By rewarding each other in terms of hectares cut they can avoid having to pay VAT."

If poor weather begins to disrupt progress be prepared to lift the table and leave a longer stubble to speed work rates. "Straw choppers consume a lot of power. Many farms are now equipped with good mowers to deal with set-aside which can be used to get rid of the straw later."

Reconsider cropping patterns to avoid excessively concentrated workloads. "If you are getting into a complete muddle think about putting more into set-aside. On a small scale it could help, but going for 50% wheat and 50% set-aside may be asking too much of a particular set up."

Radical action

At sowing time, do not be afraid to change plans. "Dont be scared of spinning. You will have to increase seed rates, but the results are often surprisingly good and some of the equipment required isnt very sophisticated.

"Dont be afraid to pull out any older machines still on the farm. Compared with not getting the job done the odd drill miss is well worthwhile when you are looking for commercial survival.

"If it makes the difference between getting a crop in and having to wait perhaps until May, it is worthwhile."

Sowing oilseed rape while combining can be a valuable time-saver and need not involve complicated or even off-the shelf machinery. "I know of farmers who have built their own on-combine spreaders," says Mr Bolton.

Arrange in advance to hire or share drilling equipment from neighbours which might be more suitable for a given set of conditions than those already on the farm, he suggests.

"There are basically five types of drill, none of which can be expected to be right all the time." Ensuring access to a wider choice can help maintain progress in the crucial autumn sowing window.

If possible take on enough staff to operate a shift rota and keep key machines working 24 hours/day in the busy period.

More forethought can pay dividends when spraying. "Avoid unnecessary downtime caused by having a set of low ground pressure tyres ready when travelling becomes tricky. Its all about improving get-about ability."

Think ahead about the types of alternative pesticide mixtures which could be used if schedules begin to slip. "By choosing the right mixes you can often extend the time before you need to treat again and so cut your workloads."

Check you have a suitable range of nozzles to keep going when conditions are poor.

The merits of adding liquid fertiliser facility should not be dismissed lightly, he adds.

Growers running into trouble and expecting salvation from machinery rings and contractors can do much to help themselves.

"Prompt service warrants prompt payment. Most of our industry operates on a 25-28 day payments system. If someone gets a reputation for poor payment they are not helping themselves.

"Finally, I believe many more farmers should be talking to each other to see how they can co-operate to overcome unexpected problems. I still dont see very much of it going on. It generally only happens when pressures force them to do so, by which time it can be too late." &#42

Ahead of the busy autumn period, think about which older machinery still on the farm could be pressed into action in an emergency and who might drive it, advises David Bolton.

&#8226 Plan for staff sickness/injury.

&#8226 Gear up for only the very worst years.

&#8226 Strive for efficient harvesting.

&#8226 Service equipment during slack periods.

&#8226 Arrange adequate dealer support.

&#8226 Develop good relations with your neighbours.

&#8226 Dont be afraid to reconsider cropping arrangements.

&#8226 Be ready to modify sowing method.

&#8226 Bear in mind all pesticide options.

&#8226 Pay contractors and rings promptly.