5 January 2001

New Year cheer as land work is back on track

With the arable work just

about up to date, there are

reasons to be optimistic at

Cansdale. Simon Wragg

reports

NEW Year celebrations were even more cheerful than usual at Cansdale, with John Sleightholme mightily relieved that all land work was back on track.

The 22ha (55 acres) of chopped wheat straw was ploughed in after Target field beans had been broadcast on to the stubble at a seed rate of 225kg/ha (90kg/acre). Treated with a pre-emergence herbicide to knock out broad-leaved weeds, the crop should eventually make a seed contract attracting a £20/t premium over feed values, reports Mr Sleightholme.

Lower-than-expected cultivation costs mean contractors charges in the harvest 2001 budgets will have to be adjusted with the management team at JSR Farms. But other areas have suffered additional costs. After the wet harvest, potato ground was left with ruts thigh deep. To rectify this, a local contractors crawler and drag was hired in at a cost of £25/ha (£10/acre).

"It has done a good job, but I am concerned that some volunteer potatoes may appear next season if the frost did not get to them before they were buried. They are the last thing we need to start appearing in subsequent vining pea crops if we are to hold on to our contract which pays well," he adds.

Elsewhere, other crops have been treated with a herbicide spray. Early drilled Equinox winter wheat had a two-pronged attack to counter annual meadow grass and sterile brome. Later established fields of Malacca winter wheat had a similar spray programme to catch cleavers, speedwell, chickweed and brome.

Neighbouring farms have also been busy drilling, which meant 12ha (30 acres) of straw in the swath had to be chopped on a unit with whom Mr Sleightholme has a muck-for-straw agreement. "It still lay wet so a topper went in at a cost of £5/acre. It means another 60t for the pig units will have to be found in spring as prices are high at present – between £30-£70/t depending on quality – with some speculative trading."

But at least the plan of selling some of the existing outdoor sows as a flying herd from Cansdale came to fruition. "We have sent 80 younger sows to a Norfolk buyer at £80 apiece plus £4 for each week they were in-pig. Six young boars also went and I am hoping we will sell some more later this month," says Mr Sleightholme.

The sale of the lower parity sows fits in well with the overall cull programme. The unit is being cleared out to make way for new stock this spring. Older sows continue to go deadweight to Nuneaton-based Dawkins Meats, netting £109 a head. There is no deduction for haulage if an articulated trailer – about 90 sows – can be filled.

Finished pigs also continue to sell well with the latest batch going through Cranswick Food Group to Malton Bacon returning £1.04/kg net deadweight. "Our margin is about 12p/kg, but even so we need 18 months at that to offset accumulated borrowings.

"I am now concerned that BSE in Europe will push compound feed costs up over £100/t soon. If it adds the £14/t some estimates suggest we would need to increase pig prices by 6.14p/kg to offset that extra cost," calculates Mr Sleightholme.

The 30,000-bird broiler unit will also be hit. Feed bills have risen in recent months adding 1.3p/kg of meat produced and a further similar increase has yet to come, suggests the trade. With returns averaging 44.3p/kg after out-grades, it is little consolation that Grampian Foods is lifting the chicken price by 0.5p/kg this week (Jan 7) to 44.5p/kg for pullets and 47.8p/kg for cocks (band 1).

The poultry house is performing well, according to feed adviser Ron Armstrong. Birds are finished from day-old chicks by 47 days with an average weight of 2.84kg. Feed conversion is 1.83/kg weight gain. "We are still feeding about 15% home-grown, whole grain wheat to help lift nutrient absorption; it also helps spread out feed costs. But much over 15% and conversion rates are hit," says Mr Sleightholme.

Concern still surrounds spikes in chick mortality. "There is no apparent reason for it but we can lose 200 birds in a few hours and then the house returns to normal. In my mind government should be looking into the causes of this rather than listening to welfare groups about leg weakness, a problem the breeding industry has just about sorted itself."

Overall, margins of about £5000 for each nine-week crop of birds are being made. "It is way short of what has been achieved in the past and would hardly cover the £160,000 capital cost to replace the unit."

But at least if investment is needed Mr Sleightholme hopes he now has a banker willing to listen and act, having changed to Yorkshire Bank. "The transfer was to cost nothing except our solicitors fees, but that bill has come to over £1300 before VAT for all the searches. It will still be money well spent; I could not have continued to cope with the physical and mental pressure from our previous bankers."

And what of prospects for 2001? "Prices for the arable crops in store are at last moving the right way and if we can hold on to the margins being made from pigs then we stand a chance of making it worthwhile going to work once again.

"We have several things to look forward to with the restock and arable crops which can grow well on our type of land and generate good money for the accounts. But I cant help feeling cautious over what will happen in the future. There are still so many things over which we have no control."

Home-grown, whole-grain wheat is helping to maintain good performance in the poultry house, says John Sleightholme.

Sign of the times…this lake sprung up in a rented field due to hold outdoor pigs.

FARM FACTS

&#8226 Westfield and Cansdale Farm, a 140ha (350 acre) largely arable unit on the eastern edge of the Yorks Wolds, farmed by John Sleightholme and his mother, Elizabeth. Both units are family-owned.

&#8226 The land is mainly chalk-based loam with small areas of underlying clay and gravel.

&#8226 Main arable crop is winter wheat. Potatoes and vining peas are also grown.

&#8226 All arable duties contracted out to neighbouring estate. Family buys inputs and decides where produce sold.

&#8226 Two indoor pig herds of 330 and 370 sows and a larger 500-sow outdoor herd selling progeny through a local processor.

&#8226 A 30,000 broiler enterprise rearing birds from chicks through to 7.75lb liveweight. Sold to supermarkets via Grampian Country Foods.

&#8226 Farm staff of 11 on pigs and one man on broiler unit.