29 March 2002

Spring work off to a flying start but crop margins slip

A decent dry weather window means arable operations

are well ahead this year at Hoe Hall. Given that budgets

have fallen again, it is just the start James Keith was

looking for. Robert Harris reports

THE best break in the weather for at least two years is how James Keith describes the recent dry spell, which has allowed plough and drill to be put to good use over the past few weeks.

All 66ha (163 acres) of Optic spring barley has been sown. A start was made in the middle of last month, following on from 45ha (111 acres) of Victor beans intended for human consumption. All 39ha (96 acres) of mainly light land earmarked for sugar beet, mostly Roberta, have also been drilled. Thats about five weeks earlier than last season, which bodes well for the crop.

Final results from the recently completed campaign show the farm ended up with a few tonnes of C beet, despite serious delivery delays and frosted roots.

"Its a huge relief, especially as we are sowing the same area again this year to try to minimise C beet production," says Mr Keith. "We were able to deliver all our crop, although we had to scalp it hard and hand-sort it. But we have been luckier than a lot of other growers."

The fine spell also allowed the fertiliser spreader to do the rounds. Winter wheat – 330ha (815 acres) of Claire, Riband and Tanker – has received a first feed between 40 and 80kg/ha (between 32 and 64 units/acre) of nitrogen; Pearl barley got the lower end of that dose. The 138ha (341 acres) of oilseed rape, mainly Recital, has received its full allowance of 220kg/ha (176 units/acre).

Arable manager Simon Brock has revised his budgets for the coming season (see table), and they make grim reading.

Yield expectations are lower than last summers preliminary budget, after the second wet autumn in a row. Not surprisingly, cereal prices have also been pulled back following the sharp fall in new crop values this year.

Except for first wheats and sugar beet, there is now little difference in crop gross margins due to the levelling effect of Agenda 2000 reforms on area aid.

"With second wheats on our mineral soils giving variable results we have tended to grow barley instead, especially as it helps spread the harvest workload. But, if barley continues to produce such disappointing results, then it may well be replaced with break crops. At least I can follow them with a first wheat," says Mr Brock.

As a result, he is also trying a new break crop this year – vining peas. "The gross margin, although not as good as wheat, looks quite attractive.

"We are trying 28ha (69 acres), hoping they will do well on our light land. If they do, we could plant them after sugar beet and follow with wheat, rather than two barleys." On current reckoning, that could boost the light land rotation gross margin by almost £150/ha.

Mr Keith has committed about a third of new crop wheat from the off-lying Shipdham Farm to a Grainfarmers pool. About 120t will be sold in the October to December position and similar tonnages between January and March and April and June.

"At £61/tex-farm, I am reluctant to sell anything. But by marketing some grain through a pool, I can see how I compare to the professionals and eliminate some risk."

Organic pig performance looks set to improve. For some weeks, output has been running at about 60 head/week, well below the 100 target. Weights have also been about 10kg shy of the 70kg required by Waitrose.

"The buyer came to see me recently. I was dreading it, but all credit to Waitrose for honouring their commitment with me. They are keen to be more involved and to provide access to technical advice where possible. If anything, I was not letting them know enough about the problems here."

Pig wasting disease PWMS coupled with an over-extensive system have been at the root of the problem, says Mr Keith. "At one point, post-weaning mortality was running at 30%. It is now down to single figures after extensive consultations with local Thetford-based pig vet specialists Integra.

Paddock size has been reduced, which has boosted feed intake and encouraged pigs to make more use of the shelters. "Basically, we want our pigs to eat and drink and then sleep. With the space they had, they were doing everything but."

The first pigs reared under the new regime will soon be ready for slaughter. "So far, they have grown faster and more evenly. I hope we have found the answer – but only time will tell." &#42

&#8226 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.

&#8226 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.

&#8226 The farm also runs a 300-sow organic pig herd. A 26-cow suckler herd grazes parkland.

&#8226 A number of cottages are let.

&#8226 Farm staff of seven.

Recently revised budgets make grim reading, says Simon Brock.


Winter wheat Winter barley Oilseed rape Spring beans

Yield (t/ha) 9.07 6.52 3.5 4.25

Price (£/t) 68 77 140 90

Area aid (£/ha) 223 223 223 256

Output 840 724 713 639

Variable costs 250 238 221 115Gross margin 590 486 492 524