22 March 1996

Undermining the business

This years barometer grower in the east faces an unusual problem – shrinking fields. Andrew Blake reports from the Suffolk coast

COASTAL erosion is a constant concern for Roger Middleditch at Priory Farm, Wrentham, near Beccles. Unfortunately there is little he can do about it and it attracts no compensation.

Other matters, notably machinery management, offer much more scope for maintaining profits.

In theory he farms 271ha (670 acres). But each year more land slides into the sea bringing area payment headaches. "Weve lost up to 20m in places this winter," he comments. "Our rented area has shrunk from 279 to 239 acres since the mid-70s."

Sweeping changes, pooling machinery and staff with cousin Robert on a neighbouring 182ha (450-acre) farm, have transformed operations in the past six years. Between them they have five permanent tractor drivers and a part-time fitter. As R & R Farms they contract work another 324ha (800 acres).

Decent tackle

"It has meant we can afford decent tackle like our Bateman Hi-Lo sprayer which is a joy to work.

"Everything is ploughed" to help preserve soil structure. The 190hp John Deere 4755 tractor and 9-furrow Gregoire Besson reversible plough provide a "good clean start" to crop establishment.

One older Deutz-Fahr combine backed by a hired 6m (20ft) cut New Holland TX36 usefully replaced three machines and cut staff needs last harvest. Both will be fitted with yield meters this year.

A rebuilt six-row Matrot beet harvester lifting 243ha (600 acres) a year "helps to keep the rhizo out!"

The farm has a continuous-flow drier and adequate in-bin and on-floor storage for all the grain which Mr Middleditch tends to sell monthly through three merchants. But increasingly volatile prices and currency fluctuations mean co-operative marketing has not been ruled out.

Soils at Priory Farm range from blowing sand near the coast to heavier, sandy clay inland. Annual rainfall is about 525mm (21in). But irrigation from a series of well points is vital for growing sugar beet and the main money earners. Those are small pre-pack potatoes and second crop scrapers for the Wrentham Vegetables co-op of which Mr Middleditch is chairman.

Low protein potential makes breadmaking wheats non-starters, so he aims for good yields of feed types, mainly Riband. Most are grown as first wheats after a break. Rialto, tried last year for the first time, yielded very well after sugar beet but failed to achieve a premium, he comments.

Straw strength

With winter barley, all Puffin, generally on the lighter land after potatoes, the aim is a malting sample of about 1.75N. "We usually get it and Ive upped the area this year because of the premiums." With straw strength particularly important he is considering some Fanfare for next season.

Variety choice is NIAB-based with additional input from trials run by local chemical supplier Protectacrop.

"I know were paying a slight premium for our chemicals, but Im comfortable with the system and its carefully monitored," adds Mr Middleditch.

Oilseed rape performs well on the heavier land. "Weve had up to 2t/acre of Capricorn in the past. But we keep it out of the sugar beet and potato rotation to avoid volunteers."

Vining peas, this year due to be sown with the new US variety Arise, are grown and harvested under a pooling arrangement for Waveney Pea Growers.

As long as C quota prices remain high, irrigation – up to 130mm (5in) last year – pays off on sugar beet, claims Mr Middleditch who won an Ipswich factory award for top performance in 1992/93.

Weed control

Weeds present few problems because of the diverse cropping. "We can keep on top of most things quite cheaply." But with current prices "pretty good" he is not averse to spending on fungicides where appropriate.

The three sprays on last years winter rape were well rewarded. Wheats generally receive the same number of treatments and up to 225kg/ha (180 units/acre) of N – after sugar beet.

But Mr Middleditch is wary of using late growth regulators overall, because of the risk of damage in droughts. "Well perhaps do the drilling overlaps but I prefer to go for strong-strawed varieties."

Sulphur – "a quite cheap commodity" – is increasingly being used in the first top dressings for winter cereals and oilseed rape and as an anti-mildew spray companion to early low dose cereal fungicides such as Tern (fenpropidin).

The farm already uses the services of land agent Andersons for budgeting. "Questions like Why do you want that tractor? really concentrate the mind," says Mr Middleditch. But a new computer system, probably from Optimix, is also planned. It should provide a better handle on field records and allow them to be used more effectively as management tools, he explains. &#42

Priory Farm 1996 cropping and typical yields


Winter wheat (Riband, Consort, Rialto)571429.03.6

Winter barley (Puffin)451126.52.6

Winter oilseed rape (Apex)16404.41.8

Potatoes (Maris Peer, Carlingford,Pentland Javelin)29732711

Sugar beet (Zulu, Saxon, Aztec)28686526

Vining peas (Arise)18454.41.8

Parsnips (Gladiator)10244016

Farming on the edge… Roger Middleditch has lost land to the sea in recent years. But a machinery revamp is ensuring profits dont suffer.