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8 October 1999

Squelchy but


Rain, mud and more mud. This years Irish National

Ploughing Championship event proved to be a testing

occasion. Andy Collings donned the leggings and

trawled the machinery lines to find useful innovations

THE Irish Ploughing Event, with its 150,000 visitors and extensive machinery displays, will never be renowned for its clement weather – but this year it surpassed all expectations.

Ankle deep mud at best, axle deep more likely – visitors struggled gamely on through torrential rain to discover all that was new at Europes largest outdoor agricultural event.

And with Irish farmers currently enjoying rather more prosperity than their UK counterparts, most exhibitors reported reasonably full order books.

Tractor sales, for example, have been making some healthy strides forward during the past two years – 1998 saw an increase of some 20% on 97 and, for the first three months of this year, sales are running at 20% above those of last year. The reason for such increases though, is not immediately obvious.

Like UK farmers, beef, lamb and pig prices have been low and cereal returns have suffered from poor harvesting conditions.

Ironically, several tractor manufacturers put the increase in tractor sales down to the poor sales of new machines in the UK.

Sales in the UK, they say, have been depressed to the extent that the second hand market – a market which has traditionally sustained the Irish market – has all but dried up.

Another factor, which has encouraged sales of all machinery types in Ireland, is the countrys continued low interest rate.

In terms of specific machinery, there is now an increasing trend towards the sale of larger kit as contractors take an ever-bigger slice of on-farm activities. It is estimated for example, that contractors are responsible for making 95% of Irelands silage. So, weather aside, the Irish Ploughing match proved to be its usual successful event and one which drew a reasonable crop of new machinery launches.

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4 July 1998

ITS the new sound bite culture thats to blame. That and the horde of business management consultants at events like Cereals 98 where they resemble nothing much more than the salesmen on the not-so-cheap plonk stands at the Royal Show.

One offers you a £90/ha power and machinery target while another points up the major effect of labour and machinery cutbacks in getting wheat production costs down to an anorexic £50 per tonne.

Dont dismiss them, however, even if what they have to say in detail is just as unpalatable as the plonk dispensed by their counterparts in the wine trade. The reality of facing up to over-indulgence in farm equipment can be a lot harder to bear than the morning-afters legacy of pain from sluicing down a case of over-hyped Riesling.

How many UK growers can put hands on heart and claim they would make a profit without area aid? Even the suggested £70/t production costs target from Cereals 98 isnt enough to limbo safely under world wheat price levels.

No matter whose cost of production figures you choose as your guide, one feature remains clear – variable costs differ little from the best hectare of silt to the worst bit of breckland. Dealing with overheads, particularly power, machinery and labour, offer the greatest scope for the forward-thinking grower to propel a business into the top 25% of performers.

The best vantage point from which to examine your cultivation machinery and your pulling power is that of a suspicious shareholder questioning the return to the business from each investment rather than as an indulgent owner justifying a new set of big discs, the latest multi-furrow, reversible plough, and a power harrow just in case its needed to polish up a seedbed.

There really is far too much recreational ploughing going on even now; unnecessarily turning over soil that suffers from no particular weed problems; and avoiding the benefits that can be gained from a properly-thought out and prepared minimum tillage strategy where that suits. It may do wonders for the ego to have a comprehensive and state-of-the-art machinery inventory but how much capital is tied up under cover in the sheds for most of the year, and how big is your repair bill?

Of course, crop establishment deserves its No1 priority status. But not at any expense; now more than ever is the time to think about sharing, machinery rings, contractors, and short-term hiring.



Sharing machinery is allowing some arable businesses to push up equipment specifications.

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20 June 1998



ITS tempting fate – but here goes. Many crops of oilseed rape look fantastic.

Its been a good year so far. Establishment was a doddle compared with 1996. And plants which had raced away during the mild winter managed to escape late frost damage to come through into spring as tall as saplings.

The crop has made good use of the wet April. It has produced what some experts reckon is a record number of pods. Fingers crossed, but with enough water to see the crop through pod fill, we could be looking at a record rape crop.

Threats from disease have in the main evaporated. Although phoma leaf spot was noticeable in the autumn, the disease appears to have subsided and stem symptoms arent as numerous as might have been expected. Wet weather at flowering brought a sclerotinia scare – but thats all it was, just a scare.

Nationally, about a fifth of the oilseed rape area is down to hybrid varieties which pushes up the potential for yield still higher.

Predicting the final tonnage from the oilseed rape harvest is a notoriously difficult task – the crop has the capacity to take even the plant physiologists completely by surprise – but if rape does turn up trumps this harvest, then might it be a record crop? Perhaps.

Returns are also looking good. Unlike cereals, oilseed prices are holding up. And with wheat trailing at £70/t, it doesnt take a genius to spot that one tonne of rape is now roughly equivalent to two tonnes of wheat. But rape is one heck of a lot cheaper to grow.

True, area aid has been nibbled away by penalty overshoot deductions and the strong green pound. But rape margins look as though they could be £50/ha (£20/acre) or so ahead of wheat this harvest.

Winter linseed may do even better. If the crop can be persuaded to deliver in a yield of 2.5t/ha (1t/acre), growers can expect returns of £80/ha (£32/acre) above that from first wheats, according to one breeder of winter linseed.

Thats the good news for now; in its current form, Agenda 2000 will pull the rug from winter linseed by eliminating the higher support payment. It will also eat into oilseed rape profitability.

But the Agenda 2000 proposals face much discussion before they are set in place. A lot could change in the meantime.

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