Set fair after April showers end dry spell
Recent rains have put crops back on track
at Hoe Hall,which is just as well given the
state of the market. Robert Harris reports
CEREALS, pulses and sugar beet have all perked up after April showers put an end to a five-week dry spell at Hoe Hall.
Arable staff have made the most of the dry slots since, producing some excellent spring seed-beds. Work is up to date, helping to contain spray costs.
All 330ha (815 acres) of winter wheat – Claire, Riband and Tanker – have received a flag-leaf spray. Arable manager Simon Brock chose a reduced rate of Twist and Opus.
"There was little septoria pressure. We went slightly late with the T1 spray due to the cold spring, so there has only been a three to four-week gap between applications."
The wheat fungicide bill is on target to hit the £66/ha (£27/acre) budget, and some savings have been made on winter barley spray costs, too. The crop – 64ha (158 acres) of Pearl – suffered from the very wet autumn, and it will struggle to fulfil its potential.
"Fortunately, plants are pretty clean," says Mr Brock. Reduced rate Acanto and Unix sprayed as the awns emerged should see the crop through.
The 66ha (163 acres) of Optic spring barley was hit by mildew, but a cheap mix based on Corbel performed well.
Other spring crops have also caught up. Sugar beet, drilled in early March, has pulled away. Owner James Keith reckons the crop could meet across the rows about four weeks ahead of the Norfolk Show yardstick.
"That bodes well for reaching our 55t/ha target. Its surprising how well it has done after a slow, dry start. Every bit of wildlife on the farm seemed to want to eat it in the early post-emergence stages."
But knotgrass was a major problem this year, and mayweed proved tougher than usual, too. "The residual sprays struggled in the dry soils," says Mr Brock. "Then we had a hot spell which hardened off the weeds leaves. Our herbicide bill has risen from £100-110/ha as a result."
Knotgrass also proved a problem in the vining pea crop. Apart from that, this new break – 28ha (69 acres) of Misty – has got off to a flying start. "The crop went in beautifully in early April."
Good cereal yields will be crucial this harvest. Mr Brock has been busy preparing cash flow forecasts, and has been sounding out the grain markets.
"It seems that wheat is going to be worth no more that £60/t in November, and I was quoted £66/t for Pearl barley and just £2/t more for Optic."
These prices are £8-10/t below budget, and, not surprisingly, Mr Keith is reluctant to part with anything. About 60% of the wheat and all the barley go through local grain group SEFA, but that still leaves him about 1000t of wheat, 500t of oilseed rape and 550t of beans to sell.
About a third of that wheat has been committed to a Grainfarmers pool, and almost half the oilseed rape was sold at £140/t for harvest movement some months ago.
"There is a very long marketing season ahead, until June 2003. For the past four months, everything has been going down. But world events may change. There is famine in Africa, and there is talk that 750,000t of grain will go there, probably from the US. There are drought concerns in central and Eastern European countries, and anything could happen to southern hemisphere crops.
"And the strong £, which has been the main culprit when it comes to cereal prices, is starting to give a little against the k. Sterling is unlikely to fall out of bed – the UK economy is still very strong, and any recent weakening of the £ is probably due to talk of a referendum next year. We shall continue to be pessimistic for budgeting purposes."
It is hardly surprising that young people are turning their backs on farming, says Mr Keith. "We are even having trouble finding a harvest student. No-one wants to come in on the lower rungs of the industry. We only had five responses to a recent advertisement, and only one of those may fit the bill.
"It is very worrying. The two operators that work with Simon are very good – they can turn their hand to anything. But where will the next generation come from?"
Output from the remote, offlying organic pig unit has been hit by a spate of recent thefts. "We have lost about 100 pigs in the past week. It sounds careless, but when you have about 2000 pigs on the outdoor unit at any one time it is not easy to see if a few are missing from several pens."
Some all-night vigils appear to have succeeded in putting the thieves off, says Mr Keith. "And we shall be taking further steps to tighten security."
More usual types of pig losses have fallen drastically, following the decision to reduce paddock size to combat pig-wasting diseases by encouraging pigs to eat and shelter more, and reduce stress. Smaller group-farrowing pens seem to be working well, with good, even-sized pigs being weaned.
Finishing weights have almost returned to the 70kg target, more than 70 pigs a week are being sold, and over 100 are now being weaned each week. "We have managed to cut our post-weaning losses to about 8%, so throughput should climb over the next few months," says Mr Keith.
Pig thefts, long-term sick pay (one man has been off for almost a year) and several sundry claims will mean a much higher insurance bill next year. "Our premium is rising by 50%. There is no doubt we have had an unfortunate run, but that is going to hurt. I will see if the costs of cover are realistic – we may have to carry some of the risk ourselves." *
• Swanton Morley Farms, based near Dereham, Norfolk, is an 890ha (2200 acres) largely arable unit managed as a family partnership by James Keith and his wife Victoria.
• Arable crops cover 90% of the unit. Wheat grown on medium sandy loam soil goes as feed. Barley goes for malting. Sugar beet is also grown. A further 182ha (450 acres) is contract farmed locally.
• The farm also runs a 300-sow organic pig herd. A 26-cow suckler herd grazes parkland.
• A number of cottages are let.
• Farm staff of 7.