3 April 1998

Were now a park-keeper

LIVING in such an attractive part of France it was inevitable that the park keeping lobby would get around to us sooner or later, writes Tim Green.

We have been selected, as inhabitants of the Pays dAuge, for an agri-environmental protection scheme. It covers steep land, wet land and any land bordering a watercourse and brings in three-quarters of our 160ha (395 acres). Only the flat arable area surrounding our landlords chateau escape.

Although the scheme is not compulsory, from a financial point of view it has been too good to ignore for at least some of the farm so we have signed a five-year contract for a quarter of our area.

Different contracts

Various forms of contract are on offer providing payments ranging from £47.50/ha (£19.23/acre) to £157.50/ha (£63.76/acre). Our land at Vimer appears to fall into several of the categories; the main one is for land bordering a water course which attracts aid of £72.50/ha (£29.35/acre).

To qualify we must observe various restrictions notably a maximum stocking rate of 1.4 livestock units a hectare. Thats easy to achieve given the other requirement of the scheme which is a restriction on fertiliser use. We will be limited to using no more than 50kg/ha of nitrogen (40 units/acre); 40kg/ha of phosphate (32 units/acre) and 60kg/ha of potash (48 units/acre).

Liming is permitted, but no fertilisers can be applied within 50m of the water course. Other restrictions include no use of agrochemicals and the maintenance of hedgerows, brambles and any bracken. One additional anomaly is the requirement of a drinking trough but with no need to stop livestock drinking from the stream or river if they prefer.

That contract could have swallowed up a lot of the best land on the farm. In fact, we have restricted it to some off-lying land where we use less fertiliser and have developed a clover-based system.

The next category covers hilly land where the compensation is £47.50/ha (£19.23/acre) for a 15-20% gradient and £76.00/ha (£30.76/acre) where the gradient is more than 20%.

Our land behind the house would qualify for this. Most years we do not use much fertiliser because the pasture dries out so quickly in summer. Another benefit is that the other restrictions imposed are no more than we do anyway.

The highest level of compensation we could obtain would be paid on only 1.37ha (3.4 acres). Given that this parcel of land was thrown in for nothing when we signed the 30-year rent agreement, I suppose we shouldnt complain.

However, even at a compensation rate of £132/ha (£53.44/acre) it was difficult to decide whether it should go in the environmental protection scheme because we would have to carry out maintenance. That would have to be manual because a tractor cannot operate on the slopes.

Labour costs

In the end, because the subsidy will just about cover the estimated labour costs, we decided to go for it. At least it would keep the place tidier.

With half the money coming from the state and half from Europe the scheme has been advertised well although our ministry has not been actively chasing people to participate. Nevertheless, there has been a very positive response with most farmers in the region putting forward about 25% of their farm.

Grass growth has been deceptive this spring. Although it appears to be an early season it has not really warmed up and, in reality, it is later than usual.

Our cows went out, for the first time, on Feb 28. Ground conditions have been good and they continue to strip graze the first-cut silage ground and some forage rye. The continuous dry weather has even persuaded us to allow them out briefly after evening milking albeit with access to the buildings.

It is not saving much in the way of concentrates although we are gradually reducing the soya and rape in the ration. The recommendation is after the first 4kg to 5kg of maize dry matter then we should feed 0.5kg of soya (or equivalent) for each additional 2kg of maize dry matter.

The big problem we are finding is that because the maize is so dry and the clamp so big, the feed face is heating as the rate of advancement decreases.

Finish quickly

Once the grass does begin to grow we will probably finish feeding the maize quite quickly and rebuild the maize clamp using a silage additive. If we dont the clamp will be impossible to manage in the summer.

This will encourage us to produce more milk from forage. At present we are achieving 4364 litres from forage on a yield of 6512 litres. It is improving gradually but we still have to catch up the best performers in our dairy group.

Farmers seem to be finally moving away from a maize-only mentality to one where grass is being considered more seriously. It is due to the combination of a younger generation and continued coaxing from the milk recording and advisory services. As margins become squeezed then systems become re-appraised. Farm incomes in the Normandie region rose by 0.1% last year although there was no improvement for milk production. The figures are healthier for France as a whole showing a 6% increase thanks to improvements in the cereal sector and, most notably, wine production.

Our wheat and barley have come through the winter in good form and have just received a growth regulator applied at 2 litres/ha with an additive LI700. They cost £1.35/litre and £1.30/litre, respectively.

The herbicide we applied recently has worked well with the crops looking clean. The second application of nitrogen will go on any day now.

Growing cereals again has helped us to become more self sufficient and boosted cash flow and margins this winter.

There have been fewer bills for feed and straw although we have required some extra straw to finish the winter which cost £35/t delivered.

Pretty as a picture and worth paying for, according to French taxpayers. Generous payments have tempted Tim Green to sign Vimer farm up for an agri-environmental protection scheme on a five-year contract.