3 May 1996

Rain stops potato planting

Potato planting has been interrupted by rain at Dowrich. Tim Relf reports

Wet soils brought the job to a halt on Apr 11, at which point well under half of the 20ha (50-acre) total was completed. "Its better to wait – if you muck them in, you tend to muck them out," says Anthony Lee. His patience has paid off, with the job progressing again this week.

Estima and Pentland Dell have been sown at 34,000 and 35,500 tubers a hectare respectively. The seed-bed was good, partly thanks to a newly-acquired Grimme bed tiller. "It helps create a quality seed-bed, while making less passes across the ground," says Anthony.

"Potato returns were good last year and, as we plan to grow them in the long term, the £3850 investment should be justified."

A similar outlay was also made on a Hardi sprayer, although this will be used on other enterprises, too. (This was secured on an interest-free arrangement.)

Expansion of the potato enterprise is not, however, an aim, with the area limited by soil types, slopes and compatibility with other enterprises. "The fields closest to the dairy would be well suited to the crop, but it is useful having these in grass, so the cows dont have to walk too far."

Renting more land is a possibility. The Lees already rent 4.9ha (12 acres) specifically for potatoes. "But land doesnt come available very often. And there is always the IACS factor, which has driven rents up.

"High payments can be afforded in good potato years, but there are bad years, too."

About 160t of last years crop was put in cold-store, and there is still 100t awaiting sale. "That sold out of store so far has typically made about £120/t," notes Anthony. "But nationally, prices have weakened recently, as samples of poor quality and size have come onto the market."

Priorities

Most of the 1995 crop totalling 700t total crop was sold at, or shortly after, harvest at prices of £145/t. "We may keep some on the farm for a month or two after lifting," says Anthony. "If the season is advancing, and it is wet, the priority is to get them out of the ground and onto concrete."

The Lees commitment to co-operative marketing extends to potatoes, with all the crop sold through Exeter-based Banjo Potatoes. Anthonys father, Michael, was a founder member of this group, which now has over 20 members.

"The co-op helps with agronomy, but their real expertise lies in marketing. They achieve the best return they can on the growers behalf, whether it means selling the sample two or 200 miles away. Our job is to grow and lift a high yield and quality sample."

To this end, 180kg (144 units/acre) of nitrogen has been applied to the fields destined for Estima, a variety grown for the pre-pack market. Land growing Pentland Dell – destined for processing – has received 140kg/ha (112 units/acre).

Soil analysis revealed no P or K was necessary, thanks to judicious applications of muck and slurry.

The nitrogen, bought at the beginning of the year, cost £137/t, about £20/t more than last year. Another 25t load was sourced just after Easter for £133/t.

"It was a quiet time in the market, so not only did we get a good price, but it was also delivered very promptly," says Anthony.

"This will be applied partly to the grazing land. But it has been delayed by the late spring."

Indeed, turnout is about three weeks behind last year. "Stretched but lasted," is how Anthony describes feed supplies. Giving the dry cows silage, recently bought at £15 a bale, has helped.

Concentrates, meanwhile, will be cut to 1kg of sugar beet fed in the parlour, when the cows are out full time.

Pig feed prices also continue to rise, as supplies of contracted feedstuffs run out and the Lees return to the spot market. The benefit of the jump in pig prices immediately after the BSE scare, meanwhile, is only now being reflected in returns.

Selling contractually on a deadweight basis, with a price linked to the AAPP, means rises in spot prices at auction take a while to work through the system, explains Anthony.

"Hopefully April figures on the MLC PigPlan results will show an average of 140p/kg dw, compared to Marchs 135.6p/kg.

"Producers who use a livestock market may have sold more pigs when the prices leapt up. But we supply whatever pigs we have available, each week, to Western Quality Pigs, another local co-op.

"This week we have sent 54; but the number we send fluctuates with availability. Sometimes it can be over 120; other times less than 40.

"But as with Banjo Potatoes, the pig co-op has a regular total supply, which enables it to guarantee good outlets and, therefore, sell to the best advantage of its members.

"Thats the spirit of co-operative marketing." &#42

Planting 20ha of potatoes has been a stop-start business at Dowrich, with wet soils delaying progress.