19 February 2000

The new spring rivals

With margins for traditional spring-sown breaks under attack, Rachel Potter reviews the alternatives.

Soya

INTEREST in northern soya has been so great this year that seed supplies are virtually exhausted and growers who have not yet purchased their seed may be unlucky. Varietal improvements have largely contributed to this expansion in soya acreage, with varieties now being available which are better suited to UK conditions, particularly the need for both day-length neutrality and determinity.

One major attraction of this crop is that the UK market is large – 1m tonnes of soya and 1m tonnes of soya products are imported annually. On a world scale the crop is also huge – 170m tonnes are traded annually – and increased production from the UK is unlikely to have much impact on market price. The GM debate has also increased demand for fully traceable soya grown from non-GM sources; this could be a major marketing opportunity for UK-grown soya.

The key to success with this crop is establishment. It must be drilled into warm soil at the end of April – do not be tempted to drill too early or too deep – and needs warm temperatures to enable harvesting in early September.

Herbicides can be applied under off-label arrangements, but otherwise the requirement for spray inputs is minimal. Sometimes desiccation may be necessary but in a good year the crop will be ready for combining in early September.

Soya does appear to have potential in the UK, particularly as it is underpinned by subsidy support. It is also interesting to note that the relative profitability of soya compared to other spring sown break crops is likely to increase over the next couple of years due to the greater proportion of output accruing from the crop rather than the subsidy. Therefore perhaps one to try, but probably not until 2001 due to limited availability of seed for this spring.

Sunflowers

Sunflower growing in the UK should be targeted at the bird seed market which attracts useful premiums for bright, bold seed. With good harvesting conditions, gross margins comparable to other spring break crops (eg peas, oilseed rape) can be achieved. However, that can be difficult if the autumn turns wet, as has happened for the past two years. Establishment of the following wheat crop can then become rather a challenge.

Sunflowers therefore are a huge gamble with the weather and although we have made great improvements with regard to earlier maturing varieties, there is still a risk that the weather may get the better of it. At least the subsidy exists to underpin growing costs.

Borage

Borage is ideally suited to UK conditions. It is an easy crop to grow and being competitive there are seldom any weed or pest problems. The most tricky stage is harvesting because the seed ripens unevenly and is very prone to shedding. Constant monitoring is essential during this period. Also, because the stems have a high moisture content swathing is a necessity.

In gross margin terms, the crop appears attractive, but it must be remembered that price and yield variability will have a very significant influence on the final gross margin. A variation of between 0.4t/ha and 0.7t/ha may not sound much but with no subsidy support, a poor harvest will invariably mean a negative net margin. Also, the market for borage is very small and vulnerable so it is essential to grow the crop on contract.

That said, new contracts are likely to be difficult to find this spring and the market is in danger of becoming over-supplied as more growers seek out alternative crops. Therefore, if you are not already committed to the crop for 2000, it is probably not an option for this year.

Flax and hemp

Flax and hemp have been the main options for growers looking to grow an arable crop on ineligible land. Both have the advantage of subsidy support, at least for the coming harvest, but the drawback of sometimes needing to bale and cart straw in a wet autumn.

Minimum yields have been introduced for the flax crop and set at 2.0t/ha for the 2000 harvest. However this can be from a combination of seed and fibre. This gives a good incentive to combine the crop and retain the seed, rather than just drive a mower across the field. In addition combined crops attract a higher rate of subsidy which should cover the cost of combining.

A key requirement with both these crops is the need to produce good quality, clean fibre. Hemp is normally competitive and tends to smother weeds, but weed control should not be skimped with flax.

But do the rewards justify the hassle of the late harvest and associated problems? Both crops are pretty marginal, particularly since the strengthening pound has knocked subsidy levels. If rent and other overheads are deducted from the gross margin, there is probably not a lot of profit in either crop. The key is therefore to grow them as cheaply as possible without compromising fibre quality.

Navy beans

Although the UK market for navy beans is enormous – over 110,000t are imported into the UK each year – they are likely to remain a niche crop for the forseeable future. Good soil and lots of sunshine are required during the growing season which unfortunately restricts the crop to certain coastal and a few inland areas of very southern England.

Navy beans are planted after frosts have finished in early May and are harvested at the beginning of September. They provide an excellent break in the arable rotation and can give returns comparable to that of other spring break crops, without the benefit of any subsidy support. But, unfortunately, until greater progress is made in breeding varieties suited to UK conditions, the crop will not be a realistic option for the majority of UK farmers.

Conclusion

Great progress has been made with some of these "alternative" crops in recent years. However none have yet emerged as a strong challenger for our more traditional break crops. The gross margins may appear attractive but they hide a wide variability in performance. For 2000 harvest therefore, spring rape, peas or beans are likely to remain the most reliable options.

&#8226 Rachel Potter is a farm business consultant with Strutt and Parker


£/ha Flax Hemp Sunflowers Soya Navy Borage

beans

Output

– crop 140 250 330 435 668 760

– subsidy 460 430 313 313 0 0

Total 600 680 643 748 668 760

Variable costs 230 195 185 255 252 170

Contract 22 200 0 0 0 40

Gross margin 348 285 458 493 416 550

£1=i0.65; agrimoney compensation excluded