3 July 1998

June showers add a shine to potato and wheat growth

Rain in June may dampen

tennis fans spirits, but it has

done more good than harm

at Dowrich. Tim Relf reports

OVERCOATS have been the order of the day at Dowrich after 122mm of rain fell in the three weeks to mid-June.

The second half of the month has also been wet, so growing conditions for the potatoes have been good, with no sign of moisture stress, says Anthony Lee. Estima and Fianna should be on course to yield above the 37t to 50t/ha (15t to 20t/acre) typical of the farm.

Planting was completed on May 26, taking the area to nearly 19ha (47 acres). Anthony feels the enterprise mix of potatoes, milk and pigs counterbalance each other well. "Usually one is doing well, one is OK and one might not be so good."

But recent months have been the exception to the rule, seeing all three in the doldrums. The last of the 1997 potatoes have just been sold, marketed through Banjo West Country, the co-op which Anthonys father, Michael, was a founder member of over 25 years ago.

"I am hoping there will be more than £100/t in the bank after selling these last ones, after deducting storage and marketing charges."

But one of the problems with potatoes is the uncertainty, both regarding yields and prices. "We know roughly where the milk price is going. Similarly, we know roughly where we are in the pig cycle. But potatoes are unpredictable, and they are in the ground, incurring costs, for well over six months before generating any money."

One of the biggest costs is sprays and one downside of the wet conditions could – if the weather turns humid – be a rise in blight. The sprayer first went in early June and, if humid conditions arrive, the blight spraying interval will be cut from 14 to 10 days.

The crop has also had a pre-emergence herbicide mix of Bullet and PDQ, at a cost of £31.6/ha (£13/acre) and £7.4/ha (£3/acre), respectively.

Seed is typically the highest variable cost, budgeted at £600/ha (£243/acre) this year. The Lees are well aware of the purchased versus home-saved seed debate, but the jury is still out. "Growing it yourself means dedicating an area for seed, which is a more work and it is not guarantee it will be suitable."

The enterprises big costs are machinery and labour, so looking at the gross margin figure, which does not take fixed costs into account, can be slightly misleading, says Anthony. The spuds gross margin is £1603/ha (£648/acre), more than five times that of wheat. Without a big choice of contractors, the Lees rely on their own kit. "We have to look after ourselves," says Anthony of de-stoning, bed-forming, planting and harvesting.

To increase the area and spread fixed costs, ground is rented. "Some of it has never grown them before, so they are free of potato diseases. Sadly they are not always free of potato pests."

Investing in irrigation has never been an option at Dowrich. "The slope and shape of the fields do not lend themselves to it and there is not sufficient water. Irrigation would mean building a reservoir, and that would cost a lot.

"In a dry year we could get another 10 or 12t/acre from irrigating. That might be worthwhile when spuds are worth £150/t. But what about in the £80/t years? Even if we did have it, it would not be switched on at the moment."

The wet weather has also helped the wheat and yields could be above the 7t/ha (3t/acre) normally seen. As with the potatoes, though, a little more sunshine would not go amiss.

But wet weather has hit the dairy enterprise. "The cows are not performing with the rain on their backs. Grass growth, although improving, has been disappointing, the cows are discontented and milk yields are rising and falling."

The variation in the amount going into the tank can be as much as 150 litres a day, but the Lees have still hit their level-delivery target in April, May and June.

The effects of the new level-delivery contract (Business, Apr 24) on milk price are now becoming apparent. It does away with seasonality payments, which, at this time of year, means avoiding the deductions.

The milk price only fell to 19.1p/litre in May, compared with last Mays 20.3p/litre. That meant the months margin over purchased feed has risen £6 above 12 months earlier to £93 a cow.

"A pleasant surprise, which is something we do not get too often in farming," says Anthony.

FARM FACTS

&#8226 A 235ha (580-acre) family farm in mid-Devon, run by Anthony Lee, his father Michael and his brothers, Roger and Christopher.

&#8226 Dairy herd of 220 Holstein Friesians averaging 5800 litres a year.

&#8226 Outdoor pigs reared from 220 sows.

&#8226 Potatoes grown on the farm and on rented land.

&#8226 Strong emphasis on co-operative marketing.

Potato variable costs (£/ha)

Budget 1998 harvest

Fertiliser 100

Seed 600

Sprays 460

Casual labour 219

Contract & hire 20

Office 38

Misc 400

Total variable costs 1,837

Rain hasnt stopped play at Dowrich, says Anthony Lee, checking the guage. Wet weather has helped the recently-planted potatoes.