5 June 1998

Fingers crossed for barley

Keeping the barley standing

has been a priority at

Rugley. But keeping the

cattle enterprise on its feet

is proving rather more

difficult, as Tim Relf

discovers

THE Jacksons have cut back on fertiliser and used more growth regulator in a bid to prevent the barley lodging.

They certainly dont want a repeat of last years experiences when, in a June which brought high winds and 18cm (7in) of rain, the crop toppled over, hitting yields and quality.

Nitrogen rates have been reduced by about 15%, to 125kg/ha (100 units/acre), split between two dressings. And chlormequat and Moddus growth regulators have been applied, with the thickest-looking crops also getting a dose of Cerone, the latter at a cost of £16/ha (£6.50/acre).

Less growth regulator was used last season on thinner-looking crops in the on-going drive to save money. "But this later turned out to be false economy," says Alan Jackson.

This year, the 297ha (120 acres) of winter barley – mainly Muscat, Linnet and Regina – looks healthy and quite uniform. "Weve done all we can – now its up to the weather," says Alan.

In a good season, the farm can grow nearly 8.65t/ha (3.5t/acre), but last harvest the figure was nearer 6.2t/ha (2.5t/acre). Despite the reduced inputs, the hope now is that when the combine rolls, yields will be above 7.4t/ha (3t/ acre). "We wont know whether the decisions we made were right or not until the crop is in the shed."

The barley also had its second and final fungicide spray this week, costing £25/ha (£10/acre). The winter wheat, meanwhile, will get three fungicide sprays, as well as 188kg/ha (150 units/acre) of nitrogen.

Inputs have been cheaper than in the past, says Alan, with the nitrogen bill down about £10/ha (£4/acre). "Good news and every little helps – but it doesnt compensate for the £30/t drop in grain values compared with a couple of seasons ago."

With this every-little-helps philosophy firmly in mind, Alan has also done away with the spring application of phosphate on the corn, saving £7/ha (£3/acre). A small dose of manganese has gone on, however, as has some potash.

The plan is to keep about half the barley for cattle feed and sell the rest. "We might need to sell more if we need the cash or if there are fewer-than-expected cattle on the farm."

Which way the post-harvest grain market will go is, of course, anyones guess. "Last year prices didnt rise and harvest values were probably the best. But the year I decide to sell it all off the combine will no doubt be the one that prices rise through the autumn and winter."

How many cattle will be on the farm in the winter is also uncertain. Numbers are at their lowest for more than 20 years, with the Jacksons reluctant to restock too heavily in the face of falling beef values.

Two weeks ago a batch of beasts, weighing 315kg dw, averaged just 154p/kg. They grossed £485, down to £459 after deductions. "They were middle of the road as regards quality – a mix of U, R and O grades."

Stock numbers have also been depleted, with some animals sold as stores or breeders. Seven heifers averaged £700 and seven Simmental cross bulling heifers made £440. Another four heifers went last week, topping at £900 and averaging £740.

Store cattle, meanwhile, remain in strong demand. The subsidy system is helping – but it is a system which Alan sees as illogical and counter-productive.

"To be efficient, you need economies of scale. If you have overheads, you need more stock over which to spread those costs. But the current system, limiting subsidy to 90 animals, is forcing us to reduce in size."

Walk around Rugley three winters ago and you would have found more than 400 finishing cattle. Now there are nearer half that number.

The 26 stores which the Jacksons sold last month, typically one year old and weighing 390kg, made £449 a head.

Without the prospect of subsidy, there would be no way such money would be paid considering the current finished trade, reckons Alan. Buoyant store prices could also have something to do with the plentiful grass supplies.

Alan remains cautious about buying stock. Another 80 calves, however, have been acquired which are younger and smaller than usual, carrying a price tag of £150 rather than the £180 or £200 usually paid. "I sometimes wonder whether I should be buying calves at all."

One consolation, at least, of the smaller beef enterprise is that less silage will be eaten this winter. But hopes of making silage early this week disappeared after a spell of rain. "At least the rain hasnt knock the barley over," says Alan. "Yet."

Barely barley… Alan Jackson has taken steps to avoid a repeat of last June (pictured) when the barley lodged, flattening any hopes of a high yielding, good quality crop.

With beef prices still in the doldrums Rugley is now home to fewer finishing cattle than at any time in the last 20 years.

FARM FACTS

&#8226 A 280ha (690-acre) arable and grass unit in the north east, farmed by Alan and Lorna Jackson on a full agricultural tenancy from the Duke of Northumberland.

&#8226 Heavy land growing combinable crops and grass, 25% in the LFA.

&#8226 Continental cross beef cattle finished on semi-intensive system.

&#8226 British Milksheep producing prime lambs, plus small pedigree Suffolk and Texel enterprises.

&#8226 Three full-time employees, supplemented by casual labour.