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16 October 1998

How a hands-on strategy


Marketing strategies to

squeeze the most from

carefully tended crops are

the focus for this weeks

round up of baromemter

farmer views.

Andrew Swallow and

Andrew Blake report

OPTIONS, pools, funds and futures are all shunned by Northern Ireland barometer farmer Michael Kane, who prefers close direct contact with local end-users because he believes such a policy has proved itself.

"It has worked well for us in the past," he says. "The only mistake we have made was selling rapeseed at harvest last year, when it went up afterwards."

Wheat was kept back until November when a ring round the feed mills found increasing demand. Over a two week period all 900t was sold for an average £92/t. "The price didnt move up any more, and dropped from March onwards," he notes.

Merchants are cut out of the marketing process. "We prefer to deal direct. It cuts out a layer of communication making it easier to deal with any problems. Also, if we have good quality wheat, the buyers know exactly where it is coming from. A merchant only contacts us when it is in his interest to."

Mondays and Fridays are avoided for selling because buyers are reluctant to bid, he notes. Up to eight mill buyers are contacted on a weekly basis. "We build quite a good picture of whats happening by phoning round the mills. We feel that to keep this information coming we do have to do some business, sometime, with each."

That also spreads the credit risk. "We are dealing mostly with old family firms. We trust their credit at present, but we may have to look at this more closely in future. If a payment runs late we are on the phone very quickly."

Payment terms are part of the negotiation. That can mean payment as soon as collected, or up to 28 days later in some cases.

Sales are usually made on a spot basis, especially around Christmas when demand is strong. "We are dealing with a number of smaller mills. Secure deliveries are important to them and we will load when the mill needs it."

This season only the barley has moved so far, for feed and seed. Oilseed rape is in store, hopefully to go to a Belfast mill for compound use. If not, haulage to Liverpool means a lower ex-farm price.

"The mill needs to be able to buy 1000t for it to be worth their using the rape. They know what weve got here, so when they are buying we shall sell. So long as the price is right."


&#8226 Weekly contact with mills.

&#8226 Cut out middle man.

&#8226 Seed sold at harvest sorts cashflow.

&#8226 Spot sales preferred.

NIFarm Assurance

Michael Kane applied to join the Northern Ireland Farm Quality Assured Cereals Scheme this summer and had a preliminary inspection last month. Field record requirements are no problem, but building modifications will cost £2000 plus labour.

Mr Kane favours the scheme in principal, but has reservations. "I agree with the whole concept, but grain coming in through the docks must be assured too. And compounders must apply the same standards as are imposed on farm."

In dealings with feed mills and many were buying un-assured grain from the south of Ireland anyway," he notes.

Abbot wheat and conservation grade oats mean assurance will be required for next harvests produce. Whether the scheme is worthwhile overall will depend on how strictly it is enforced, he believes.

Annual subscription to NIFQACS is about £45/year.


&#8226 Scotland: With limited storage Eric Haggart tends to sell forward at a negotiated price for a set delivery month. Half his 1998 harvest was accounted for in February and March mainly through two large firms. He is wary of putting too much in any one direction after all his spring malting barley went to another two years ago for a price to be agreed after harvest. Mr Haggart maintains the company missed a chance to sell as well as it should leaving him £2000 worse off. "I could have done better myself and we settled out of court. If mistakes are going to be made I would rather make them myself." Spring rape, still uncut on Tuesday, will be sold spot. "But if the price isnt good enough I may look to a merchant to store it."

&#8226 South: Patrick Godwin still does all his own marketing using an on-line service to identify trends and by telephoning round merchants. "I feel I can do it as well as others at the moment. If we had a larger tonnage I would probably look to a co-op. For now I have got time to do the job and enjoy it." This year plenty of wheat was sold forward in April, May and June at reasonable prices. "We got £74/t for Consort in October." He also took advantage of a weather price hiccup in September leaving just 100t on the farm.

&#8226 North: Despite co-op enticements to take part in pooling Keith Snowball prefers to market his own produce. "As far as I am concerned it is part of the fun of the job. We always market our grain through from harvest to May to spread the risk." Faxes from merchants are one source of information, and the HGCAs recently launched Saturday bulletin looks useful, he says. "At the moment there is a bit of farm to farm trade for barley which we can load out at any time. Oats can be quite fun to market if you have got samples that attract racing stables." Well-known smaller outlets are favoured. "Strugg-ling for the last 50p/t from an unknown merchant is asking for trouble."

&#8226 East: With four years experience as a grain trader with a large merchant David Pettitt believes he is well placed to do his own marketing. "I tend to pool the oilseed rape because we need to move it at harvest and spot prices can be poor." Good links with three main firms keep him abreast of developments, he maintains. "The key thing is not to over-expose yourself by selling everything in the same movement period." Dealing with bigger companies lessens risks and avoids the need for separate insurance, he adds.

&#8226 West: All Steven Mackintoshs wheat is used by the farms poultry enterprise, a big advantage being that it accepts grain at 16% moisture. All other crops, bar barley sold at harvest, are grown on contract except for sugar beet, onions and potatoes. The latter two are sold through Ross-based Camber Produce whose specialist knowledge offers better returns than the open market, he says.

&#8226 Midlands: Basic grain selling philosophy for Steven McKendrick ensures sales are made at the same time, roughly every six months, as the farms pig feed orders are placed. "That way we are buying and selling on the same market."

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28 February 1997

Putting it where its needed


Precision fertiliser application is taking off in the UK. Andrew Pearce talks to a Suffolk farmer to see how hes faring with the Massey/Amazone system

BY the end of 1995 and with three years worth of yield maps under his belt, Suffolk farmer Stuart Scarff was itching to move deeper into precision farming. The maps had already helped tie yield loss to headland compaction around Fenns Farms 263ha (650 acres). But with that sorted out, variations of up to 4t/ha (1.6t/acre) were still unexplained.

One 5ha (12-acre) patch in a 28ha (69-acre) field had under-delivered for two seasons. So in the autumn Mr Scarff tested the area separately, and was surprised to find very low phosphate levels. "We had sampled the field in the usual W pattern and averaged the result, ending up with an index between 1 and 2," he explains. "And then dressed the field accordingly. But in doing so, we had missed a problem area completely."

That suggested closer sampling might pay off elsewhere. So Mr Scarff divided a second field – one already yield mapped, and due for winter wheat again – into 50m (164ft) squares and got busy with his global positioning system-equipped ATV and slightly lower-tech spade. Once more there were big variations in phosphate levels, and although these corresponded only roughly with yield and known soil variations, he was keen to do something about them. The obvious thing was to adjust application rate to level nutrient status.

Initially, he varied application manually through his existing spreader. Then last summer Amazone announced its M-tronic system (see box for details). Mr Scarffs local dealer offered one on trial, along with the use of a 6100 Series tractor and the new Fieldstar/ Datavision II terminal. In autumn 1996 two-thirds of the farms 0-30-20 compound went over its discs.

How were rates decided? Some 40ha (98 acres) had already been sampled on a 50m (164ft) grid and its nutrient status was known. Targets for the rest of the farm were derived from the previous three seasons yield maps, with soil checked in high, medium and low-yielding areas for confirmation. "Sampling on a 50m grid is expensive," points out Mr Scarff, "so I am probably going to move up to 100m squares and farm the resulting 1ha blocks individually."

Idiot proof

"The equipment is pretty idiot-proof," he confirms. "All you do is tell the system the field you are in and then start and stop it. We made a point of buying good quality material which went through the machine well. Amazone calibrated the spreader at the start of work and we had the whole farm done inside two days."

How does Mr Scarff see the future? "We want to bring nutrient levels to indices 2 and above. Soil sampling small areas has shown big variations, and although we cant yet be sure how these affect yield, balancing them lets us cross one variable off the list.

"As yet the systems cost-effectiveness cant be judged. But we can use lower rates where soil indices are good, choosing only to balance nutrients taken out by the crop; or we can target fertiliser to areas where a need for more input shows up. From our experience so far the equipment is easy to set up and use, and as long as calibration is accurate I can see no reason why it should not deliver the right result." &#42

Talking partners: Amazones ZA-M MAX-tronic spreader varies application rate on cues from MFs Fieldstar-compatible Datavision II terminal (inset).

The system

Last year Amazone introduced the M-tronic version of its existing 24m (78.7ft) ZA-M twin disc spreader, which dovetails with Masseys Fieldstar system. The main hardware parts of the latter is the Datavision II terminal – a monitor/control device that can be moved between combine and tractor – and its plug-in communications unit. While in the combine the main box uses GPS satellite information and the MF yield meter to log both position and yield every 1.2sec, recording the info on a palm-sized data card. The card carries those results to the farm computer, inside which Fieldstar software generates yield maps.

The farmer and agronomist pore over these and, after pulling in other information like nutrient status variation (achieved by soil sampling), decide on fertiliser treatment for different-yielding areas. The computer then generates application maps, which go by data card back to the Datavision II terminal. This, meanwhile, has been moved to the tractor (either a 6100 or 8100 Series Massey), which carries its own GPS aerial and mounting hardware.

Amazones spreader has a second computer. On hooking spreader and tractor together the two boxes shake electronic hands, and Datavision II puts a graphic of the Amazone on its screen. The driver goes to the field, tells the system he has arrived, and starts work. Datavision II talks constantly to the Amazone, telling it when – and by how much – to alter application rate as the outfit tracks across the ground. Spreader adjustments are made electro-hydraulically, with Datavision II showing both tractor position and the varying application rate.

A 24m (78.7ft) ZA-M MAX-tronic costs from £7000, with Masseys side of the operation adding £1060 for the tractors GPS unit, fitting kit and software.

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