17 November 2000

Talking survival in hard economic times

Coping with the harsh

economic climate was the

theme of the annual Crops

Conference in Perth last

week. Scottish correspondent

Shelley Wright reports

NOT since the fuel crises of the 1970s has agriculture had to examine the cost of seed-bed preparation so carefully. But min-til is unlikely to be the solution in Scotland.

With cereal prices at an all-time low and farmers being forced to cut production costs, the biggest cost in cereal production must be re-appraised, urged SAC adviser Eric Anderson.

Crop establishment typically represents 40% of the fixed costs associated with combinable crop production, he said.

"Our overhead structure, which is closely related to scale, must change if we are to be internationally competitive, because our relatively small farm size and high cost structure is a major disadvantage.

"We need to find ways to rapidly reduce our overhead costs, while still working within constraints, which may limit an increase in farm size."

While minimal cultivation and direct drilling had become increasingly popular in the south of England, it could not be adopted widely in Scotland because topsoils in Scotland tend to be sandy loams low in clay, creating a weaker structure, which makes them much more prone to compaction.

Later Scottish harvests also leave less time for drilling, with less surface weathered tilth and more risk from grass weed competition.

Less than 20% of Scotlands arable area is ideally suited to min-till systems, Mr Anderson believed. The rest will need an alternative approach. Greater co-operation between neighbours could cut labour and machinery costs significantly, but farm structures will need to change to accommodate that.

"There is also a strong need to pool resources for storage and land. It is only by taking this radical approach, and calculating a divisible surplus in relation to the stake in the joint venture, that the heated debate over whose cereal field should be harvested first or last will be resolved.

"It remains to be seen if Scottish farmers can collaborate to this degree."