8 January 1999

Spud bonus raises spirits

Funny in farming how things

rarely go to plan. A year

ago the Lees thought

potatoes would be the

worst-performing enterprise

in 1998. But as the New

Year opens the crop looks

like it could come up trumps,

as Tim Relf finds out

EVEN late lifted potatoes were leaving the farm at £175/t just before Christmas, dwarfing the £80/t budget figure.

And these 5ha (12 acres) of Fianna, coming out of wet, cold ground in the final weeks of 1998, are likely to be the lowest priced of the 20ha (50 acre) total. The earlier lifted ones – harvested dry and put straight into boxes – are now in store and could make £200/t or more when shifted, says Anthony Lee.

This optimism comes from pre-Christmas open-market values of more than £160/t, double the figure seen at the same point in the previous season. Anthony has also been cheered by rallies in the futures market, which hit £330/t. "Id like some of that," he says.

But futures prices can be misleading and a rapidly rising market will soon meet buyer resistance, he says. Good returns from the crop will also encourage people to expand their area next year – and attract new growers – bringing the spectre of a return to an over-supply situation. "We probably shouldnt grow them next year – but, ever hopeful, we will."

Meanwhile, the Lees are making the most of the enterprises buoyancy, compensating as it does for the downturn in pigs fortunes. The belief is that pig prices will improve in the coming 12 months. "We need to get back to 90p/kg as quickly as possible to be back at break even."

But Anthony does not believe the upturn will be rapid. January can be a difficult month, when "post-Christmas blues" hit demand. "Its traditionally a difficult trading time, with a lot of pigmeat already purchased pre-Christmas. Everyones filled their freezers up," he says.

Supplies on the Continent, however, are running high, limiting the effect on values any downturn in domestic supplies may have. For Anthony, though, the New Year hasnt come quick enough and 1998 will be one to forget. "Its been a depressing time, where all that work, and all that money, was going in for no reward."

Recent commitments by the big retailers to source more domestic product is encouraging and should help trade, says Anthony. Of course, a downturn in British output has its disadvantages – buyers will have to look abroad to fill any shortage.

Upping technical performance – mainly the number of pigs weaned per sow and the daily liveweight gain – is the key objective for the year ahead.

This will be pursued in tandem with technical improvement sought in the dairy, principally improving yield from grass. In the year to November 1998, yield a cow from grazed grass was 1099 litres, compared with 1226 litres in the previous 12 months.

Better rotation management is the key to improvement, says Anth- ony. "We graze on a three-week rotation and some of our grass gets old before the cows get to it. Weve got to make sure theyre in the right place at the right time."

A two-pronged approach is the aim. Land will be taken out of the rotation and cut for silage, while the on-going policy of increasing cow numbers will continue. By February 1998, the herd size had fallen to 212 head, about 25 fewer than Anthony thinks best suits the farm.

Better grass management should also help raise overall yields, with the aim to push the 5565 litres/cow now typical up nearer 6000 litres. "Were never going to get up to the dizzy 8000 litre heights. But weve got to try and push this up – while, at the same time, not letting constituent levels slip." Dowrichs protein and butterfat figures were 4.42% and 3.49% in the year to November, respectively.

More quota will be needed so the Lees may enter the market earlier than this milk year, when 40,000 litres was leased just before Christmas. Part of this was a 10,000 litre lot of 4.5% quota which cost 9.5p/litre. "Too good to miss," says Anthony.

Hopefully, upping output should coincide with improvements in the milk price, after it "turned the corner" in October 1998, edging up to just over 20p/litre.

As with pig prices, Anthony is not expecting a big upturn. "Were just happy that it isnt falling any more, thats its moving in the right direction."

And after 1998 – when nothing went to plan – that is about as much as anyone can hope for in the year ahead. &#42

FARM FACTS

&#8226 A 235ha (580 acre) family farm in mid-Devon, run by Anthony Lee, his father Michael and his brothers, Roger and Christopher.

&#8226 Dairy herd of 220 Holstein Friesians averaging 5800 litres a year.

&#8226 Outdoor pigs reared from 220 sows.

&#8226 Potatoes grown on the farm and on rented land.

&#8226 Strong emphasis on co-operative marketing.