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John Best

19 July 2002

John Best

John Best farms 320ha

(791 acres) from Acton House

Farm, Pointspass, Co Down.

Wheat, conservation-grade

oats and potatoes are main

crops on his 220ha (544 acres)

of clay loam arable land

WE are still waiting for summer to start. The wettest May and June since 1960 has taken a severe toll on all sectors of agriculture in the province.

I am glad I kept earwash fungicide rates reasonably robust. Our wheat had 0.5 litres/ha of Folicur (tebuconazole), 0.25 litres/ha of Amistar (azoxystrobin) and 0.5 litres/ha of Hallmark (lambda-cyholthrin). Spray timings did not err too far off schedule so most is relatively septoria-free.

Oats are, to date, exceptionally clean. There is undoubtedly plenty of yield potential but unless there is a big improvement in the weather, with plenty of sunshine, much of that will not be fulfilled.

Having taken part in an RSPB survey of birds on the farm in spring and early summer, which I feel was a very valuable initiative, I was rather unhappy when a letter thanking me for my interest in the project invited me to participate in a postcard campaign to lobby DARD to switch more funds from food production to environmental stewardship and rural business support.

Personal experience to date would suggest that both environmental stewardship and rural development funds are difficult to access and are not the solution to a sustainable agriculture in Northern Ireland. Profitable food production will always be the mainstay of environmentally friendly farming.

On a trip to the U21 Rugby World Cup in South Africa recently, I visited a 10,000ha (25,000 acre) beef and cereal farm in the country. Management is exceptional with environmental consideration well up to UK standards. While labour is relatively cheap, working conditions are good. Every opportunity is taken to use local labour and alleviate a very serious unemployment problem.

Wheat drilled in 35cm (14 in) rows, at 10.5kg/ha, typically yields 3.5t/ha which, at the equivalent of £60/t, is profitable. However, their beef enterprise is struggling at present despite use of growth promoters and feed additives that drive average DLWG to 1.5kg.

I came away optimistic that there is still a place for specialist beef production in the UK. &#42

Back from a rugby and farming visit to South Africa and summer still hasnt started, says John Best in Co Down.

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John Best

21 June 2002

John Best

John Best farms 320ha

(791 acres) from Acton House

Farm, Pointspass, Co Down.

Wheat, conservation-grade

oats and potatoes are main

crops on his 220ha (544 acres)

of clay loam arable land

WHAT started as a reasonably kind spring has turned into a complete disaster.

T2 sprays were completed with wheat in ear and oats heading. That said winter cereals look remarkably well with T3 sprays due shortly. However, their spring counterparts are struggling in waterlogged soils and it is the worst grass year I can remember for a long time. Most first cut silage is still in the fields and much of our grazing is badly poached.

Our wheat flag leaf spray was 0.75 litres/ha of Modem (pyraclostrobin) with 0.4 litres/ha of Opus (epoxiconazole) added where spraying was delayed. Cerone (2 chloroethylphosphonic acid) was added at 0.4 litres/ha initially but had to be omitted as crops approached ear emergence. I can only hope for better weather at grain fill otherwise lodging could become a problem.

Oats had Acanto (picoxystrobin) at 0.5 litres/ha plus 0.8 litres/ha of Bettaquat (chlormequat), following up another Bettaquat at GS32. These two timings always produce a substantial reduction in height, which I believe is essential to reduce lodging in this climate, even though I suspect plant growth regulators have a detrimental effect on specific weight.

With a set of new Amistar nozzles in my possession and the benefit of a very interesting group meeting one evening with Syngentas Tom Robinson, that product will form part of my T3 plans. Apparently the nozzles self-destruct if any other strobilurin passes through them!

While I have been critical of some facets of our Dept of Agriculture in the past, one aspect which has always been strong is the link between the department and agricultural education. A recent report recommends disassociating the two, which can only be to the detriment of Northern Irelands farmers. The link with the University helps to maintain research funding in the province and I fear the Local Education Authorities would delight in realising the asset value of the college farms. &#42

Oats were heading and wheats in ear by the time T2 sprays were completed, says John Best from Co Down.

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John Best

24 May 2002

John Best

John Best farms 320ha

(791 acres) from Acton House

Farm, Pointspass, Co Down.

Wheat, conservation-grade

oats and potatoes are main

crops on his 220ha (544 acres)

of clay loam arable land

PROBABLY the most important farm management task of the year, the IACS application, was completed and returned by registered post earlier this month.

It is certainly more important to the survival of this farm business than any decision on crop agronomy or animal husbandry. Credit is due to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for further simplification of the paperwork this year, making the form filling more straightforward.

Despite 10 days wet weather, the spring has been very kind and field work is well up to date. Oats at GS32 have had their last nitrogen applied to bring the total to 150kg/ha (120 units/acre) or 120kg/ha (96 units/acre) for conservation grade, the maximum permitted under Conservation Guild guidelines.

Marketing of both beef cattle and the rest of the wheat out of store is difficult. Prices in the case of cattle are slipping as cheaper imports become available. No doubt these are "quality assured" and "fully traceable" and will probably end up labelled as NI produce as well!

An editorial in the Provinces leading morning newspaper this week highlighted the problem of misleading packaging. I hope its "made in Ulster" campaign to increase consumer awareness about local produce gains much support. It certainly has mine. The importance of a viable agriculture industry to both the local economy and environment is highlighted by the editorial. Consumers should understand that they cannot expect any input into the management of the countryside if they persist in supporting supermarkets that drive down prices with imports.

The agricultural show season got under way this week with the Royal Ulster, a visit from the Queen giving a very welcome boost to the show and NI agriculture. The days of big machinery or livestock deals being done there are past, but it is still an important shop window and forum for the different farming sectors to meet and communicate.

With the rugby season almost over, all that remains is for Munster to bring the Heineken Cup back to Ireland after a three-year absence. &#42

Consumers cannot expect an input into the management of the countryside if they continue to support imported produce, says John Best.

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John Best

29 March 2002

John Best

John Best farms 320ha

(791 acres) from Acton House

Farm, Pointspass, Co Down.

Wheat, conservation-grade

oats and potatoes are main

crops on his 220ha (544 acres)

of clay loam arable land

IT appears that more red tape is proposed for agriculture in Northern Ireland with Department Of Environment proposals to classify the whole Province as a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone.

In its infinite wisdom, the DOE is responsible for sewage treatment and disposal as well as monitoring water quality. Accidental sewage discharge into watercourses is not uncommon and does not receive the high profile reporting given to accidental farm effluent discharges. There may be concerns that water quality is deteriorating but there has been little scientific evidence produced to indicate that agriculture is solely responsible.

It is not logical to regulate agricultural nitrogen use while the monitoring agency and other industries go unchecked. What is needed is more soil testing and feedback of sound nutrient management advice based on scientific evidence, not this "knee-jerk" reaction to European legislation.

Good weather in early March allowed me to spread P and K on wheat and oats. Needless to say application rates were based on soil analysis and crop rotation, a 0-16-36 compound going on at 250-430kg/ha. No N is planned at present since plant numbers of both crops are more than adequate.

The past week has seen repairs to the dryer completed following a fire last harvest. At the time damage did not appear too extensive and the dryer was up and running again in a few hours, but on dismantling it we found scorch damage on many of the galvanised panels. Fortunately, my insurers have been very understanding. With wheat at £3/t less now than it was at harvest it is the fourth year in succession that storage has proved unprofitable. Perhaps it is time to consider selling grain at harvest and renting out the store for commercial use.

One of my regular wheat customers was tempted by cheaper eastern European imports through Warrenpoint Harbour. However, on inspection, quality was not up to his expectations and he is now back on my "satisfied customer list" – another convert who appreciates the benefits of locally produced grain. &#42

The whole of Northern Ireland seems set to be bundled up in more red-tape because of a DOE knee-jerk reaction to European legislation, says John Best. Should the whole Province be an NVZ, he asks.

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John Best

1 March 2002

John Best farms 320ha

(791 acres) from Acton House

Farm, Pointspass, Co Down.

Wheat, conservation-grade

oats and potatoes are main

crops on his 220ha (544 acres)

of clay loam arable land

John Best

MUCH of the past month has been spent in the office, including analysing the impact of last harvests poor yields on the accounts.

While variable costs were cut by up to 25% on wheat, experience shows yield is always the main factor determining profitability.

On the positive side, potato prices leave me with no regrets about my decision to stop growing them. I am also relaxed when I look at the empty sheep house as lamb prices in the Province have eased considerably since December.

Public debating has never been my favourite pastime but recently the Ulster Arable Society prevailed on me to oppose a motion on organic farming. As might be expected at a gathering of conventional arable farmers, the motion was defeated. But, more importantly, there was a useful exchange of ideas and both sides agreed we face many common problems – strong £ attracting imports, subsidies distorting production and the powerful influence of the supermarkets in dictating the price and quality of produce.

On a study trip organised by Keenan to a number of beef enterprises in Southern Ireland we saw much use of cereals and straw in feed rations. Grass silage was seen as one of the more expensive ingredients. It is a worry that similar increases in whole crop and maize silage area here in Northern Ireland would put our base area under pressure.

The quality and uniformity of the cattle on display were excellent and had been bought with an end market in mind and fed accordingly. There was good evidence that partnerships between producers and processors are working, something the "Vision Group" report on the future of the Northern Ireland agri-food industry highlighted a need for here. However, the rewards must be shared.

Congratulations to the England rugby team, and their supporters, on an awe-inspiring performance last Saturday. "What goes around comes around," as they say. Thanks to the hospitality of my English relations we managed to leave Twickenham with pride dented, but in good spirits. &#42

Yield, as always, was the determining factor on profitability, says John Best after doing the accounts.

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John Best

30 November 2001

John Best

John Best farms 320ha

(791 acres) from Acton House

Farm, Pointspass, Co Down.

Wheat, conservation-grade

oats and potatoes are main

crops on his 220ha (544 acres)

of clay loam arable land

OUR main farm activity at present is watching out for the postman so we can intercept the IACS cheque and whisk it down to the bank.

While it is not a very satisfying way to farm, its arrival will be very welcome. A number of small payments – small meaning not big enough to dent the overdraft – have recently landed on the doormat. I cannot help thinking what the cost of processing this increasingly complicated plethora of schemes must be.

Perhaps the real reason for running so many is to keep us completely confused in the hope that we may forget about the arable agrimonetary compensation that we will now never receive.

The farm office has been the main centre of activity recently. I have been endeavouring to finalise margins for the arable crops with the aid of a Pear Technology crop management program that has just completed its first full years recording.

Unfortunately, I cannot blame the programme for the financial returns which are being produced for some fields of wheat.

It is a measure of the resilience of the software and the efficient telephone back-up which I have received that most of the records are still in place, despite my efforts at splitting fields and changing crops to combat last years weather.

Thankfully, this years crop recording will be much simpler with all fields drilled as intended and most crops well established.

All are looking well with the last of the Napier, drilled at the end of October, just emerging. Gerald and Millennium winter oats have been sprayed with 50ml/ha of Hallmark (lambda-cyhalothrin) plus Clenecorn Super (mecoprop) at 1.7 litres/ha to check any broad-leaved weeds which had emerged. Conservation grade crops of Gerald have had Hallmark only.

Fat lambs have been cleared at what must be record prices for the time of year, but I will wait and see what effect the lifting of foot-and-mouth restrictions has on lamb prices before making a decision on purchasing store lambs for finishing indoors. &#42

John Best has been working out margins on the computer this month. Unfortunately, the software cant be blamed for the returns.

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John Best

2 November 2001

John Best

John Best farms 320ha

(791 acres) from Acton House

Farm, Pointspass, Co Down.

Wheat, conservation-grade

oats and potatoes are main

crops on his 220ha (544 acres)

of clay loam arable land

THE weather has caused some problems with sowing over the last week, but there was no problem as the sun shone down on Lansdowne Road a fortnight ago. Ireland gave England a comprehensive drilling on the rugby field and as the fields at home were waterlogged there was no question of missing the match.

That said, drilling has been progressing very well. Fine weather at the beginning of October allowed us to plant oats into some great seed-beds, which have now produced some excellent brairds. Most of the oat acreage is down to Gerald again this year, drilled at 130kg/ha (1cwt/acre) to give 230 seeds/sq m.

Some Millennium has also been planted, as I was impressed with the standing ability and yield potential of this variety last year. It has a large grain and will be suitable to roll for horse rations if the specific weight does not meet specification for milling.

The weather has reduced the last of the wheat drilling to a plough and drill operation, the drill following directly behind the plough. It is wonderful how dry the soil is turning up, even on a wet day. Changing my 3m front press for a 1.5m double front press has improved consolidation under the drill tractor, though I feel there is still room for further consolidation or some levelling of the seed-bed between the Trelleborg low ground pressure tyres.

As November approaches, I find the greatest threat to late-drilled crops is crows. In cold weather with scarce food supplies they can be very efficient at following the rows of emerging wheat seedlings pulling them out, one by one. But so far following an exceptionally mild month and rapid crop emergence, the rapid build-up of aphid numbers has been of more concern.

I have been very careful to keep my word count correct for this article – I would hate to give the editor any excuse to cut my reference to the Ireland v England rugby result. Well done boys, bring on the All Blacks. &#42

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John Best

5 October 2001

John Best

John Best farms 320ha

(791 acres) from Acton House

Farm, Pointspass, Co Down.

Wheat, conservation-grade

oats and potatoes are main

crops on his 220ha (544 acres)

of clay loam arable land

OUR last field of beans was combined late last week producing a pleasing 5.8t/ha (2.3t/acre), in sharp contrast to the lupins, which managed only 1.7t/ha (7cwt/acre).

In fairness to the lupins I must admit that management and herbicide damage both contributed to their demise. Wheat yields varied from 10.1t/ha (4.1t/acre) following beans to a low of 4.2t/ha (1.7t/acre). Unfortunately, the former was a 2.8ha field and the latter a 10ha one.

A 12-day spell of fantastic weather made combining a real pleasure, despite some average crops, and allowed me to enjoy the start of rugbys European Cup last weekend with a trip to Italy to see Ulster scrape home 33-28 against Treviso. Full marks to the weathermen, whose prediction of an Indian summer proved correct and my apologies for my cynicism about their forecasts in my last article.

While overall yields have been well down on previous years, there is some consolation in how well some of the January-drilled wheat performed. It did much better than the wheat which was "mucked in" during October and November, but I hope I do not have to draw on the experience again.

With grain and straw in good shape, mechanical set-backs were kept to a minimum. The new Welger belt Baler proved its capacity to gather a lot of straw in a day, producing a range of bale sizes to order from "6x4s" weighing 1t to "4x4s" weighing 220kg plus. As usual the combine discharge auger had to be dismantled on two occasions, but we have become quite adept at this operation, even in the dark, as it seems to be an annual event.

Ploughing and pressing wheat stubble is progressing well and we are drilling home-saved Gerald oats into this ground at 120kg/ha (1cwt/acre) to produce 220 seeds/sq m. That is the main variety, but Millennium will take 20ha (50 acres) after impressive standing ability and yield in trials despite a disappointing bushel weight of 51kg/hl. &#42

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