20 June 1998

JUST BROWSING…

Visitors to Cereals 98 were in sombre mode. Chequebooks were kept under lock and key: growers were looking for ways of spending less, rather than more. Heres a taste of the mood at the event.

Down from Yorkshire, Tim Caley was not happy.

"No doubt about it – our costs per tonne are too high. Im looking at new varieties to boost output. Were trying to grow a big heap, rather than quality – so production counts. We will be making savings; perhaps 15-20% less on fertiliser, lower seed rates, and well be trying to time our fungicides better. Its a gloomy outlook. Theres just no light at the end of the tunnel at present."

Neighbour Matthew Hodgson was making changes to farm operations. "Weve invested in a new drill set-up – itll enable us to cut out one cultivation operation. And were looking at two tractors instead of three or four. Theres one man less on the farm now, and overtime is out."

Hes also weighing up mapping systems. "We do IACS on computer already – wed like to link this with mapping, but only if the costs come down."

Mr Hodgson has signed up with the ACCS crop assurance scheme: "Were in the food chain, and its our responsibility to provide consumers with guarantees of food safety. It also makes sense for us as growers. If grain quality from this harvest is dodgy, then the merchants will pick and choose who they buy from. Crop assurance should help us. Im looking today for equipment to help us come up to the required standard – bug traps, grain spears and so on."

Fellow Yorkshireman Malcolm Conner is also a signed-up ACCS member. "Where theyre still standing, crops in our area seem well. But their value is bleak. Were cutting seed rates and every year we try new varieties. To help us keep inputs down, wed like to see more disease-resistant varieties, and Ill be taking a look at what there is here today."

Yellow rust is rife. "Were seeing the disease even in relatively resistant wheats where they follow on from Brigadier last year – it must be disease carryover."

Wiltshire grower and NFU official Richard Butler knows he needs to make savings.

"Our production costs are around £90/t; well be trying to drive this down. Well be looking hard at rental values. The principal target will be fixed costs – machinery and labour, but we wont be ignoring smaller savings on variables."

Mr Butler intends driving hard bargains with his suppliers: "Wed like to see fertilisers and sprays being more competitively priced. They seem to be much cheaper elsewhere in Europe."

Hes not keen on making any significant cuts to inputs. "Were not into prophylactic spraying anyway. Cutting back further might lead to loss of yield and quality. As we saw last year, losing bushel weight can be an expensive business…"

Developments in sprayer technology to improve application interest him. "But my chequebook remains closed today."

Notts grower and former NFU president Sir David Naish knows what hes aiming for with costs per tonne.

"Were looking to be at the £83-84/t level – and the business is not there yet. Its partly because half the business is in root crops with a higher machinery requirement, and partly because the sandy soil is irrigable which puts up the costs. But were now in a position to do a detailed breakdown of our costs and apportion them."

Sir David has been making savings for some time. "Its an ongoing process. Last year we brought costs down by about 2.5% right across the farm. Were managing with fewer people, using more casual staff. We deal with machinery repairs differently, and we lease or share some equipment." Sir David is now a director of Aubourn Farming: "Using farming companies like Aubourn could help those people who are finding life difficult."

Cambs grower Derrick Beckett wasnt aiming to open his wallet at the event. "Were looking carefully at everything were spending. But the cost of producing a tonne depends on what market youre aiming for – were growing malting barleys and Group 2 milling wheats, so quality counts. We darent risk jeopardising that. Im trying some of the new chemistry this year – well see this harvest if it was money well spent."

Machinery purchases are ruled out for the moment. "My pocket is not deep enough. But if we can survive the next two or three years, things could pick up."

He reckons the Cereals events are the best forum for technical information. "The county shows have become more like rural showpieces. This event is for farmers only."