23 October 1998

Worst wheat harvest in 11 years & still raining

Combining may be finished

but the late harvest is

already threatening next

years crops at Rugley. What

next, say the Jacksons, still

recoiling from slumps in

sheep and beef prices.

Tim Relf reports

WHEN the last field of wheat was cut, Alan Jackson took a moment to compare the harvest with last year. That one, he says, was the worst for 10 years. "And this one was the worst for 11."

Combining was completed on Oct 9 – the day on which, last autumn, drilling was finished. By then, a fifth of the wheat had toppled over – but persistent rain and the lack of sunshine were the real culprits. Little grain came off at less than 20% moisture content, with quite a bit as high as 24%. "OK, were not in Norfolk – so we expect to dry it, but in a good year we might see 18%."

Tyne Grain, the co-op through which it is sold, charges £11/t for grain between 24.1% and 25%. On top of that, theres a haulage charge of £3.95/t – both unwelcome at a time when the market value is only just topping £70/t.

Poor yields have added to the problem. Wheat typically yielded about 6.42t/ha (2.6t/acre). "We need 7.5t/ha (3t/acre) to make it pay," says Alan.

Groundwork is a month behind and a struggle. And theres no sign of the rain abating. "Even on a good day, we have had a shower," says Alan. "Were half-drilled and totally washed-out."

Every day of delay beyond mid-October could impact on harvest date and yield. But sowing spring grain is not an option – the practice has long-since been abandoned due to a 2.5t/ha (1t/acre) yield shortfall.

Poor performance by the arable crops is particularly galling, because the hope was it would prop up flagging beef and sheep margins. Cattle traditionally have shown the biggest turnover and, historically, made the most money.

"Not any more," says Alan. The next finished cattle are not due to be sold until the early spring – and probably just as well with prices now below 80p/kg lw.

Wet weather has forced Alan to house all the cattle. While there are fewer than for many years, feed stocks could still be stretched – first-cut silage was scaled back to 50 ha (120 acres).

"We thought we had enough winter feed because we were going to supplement the silage with straw. But the lack of straw – some was still in the field waiting to be baled last week – is putting pressure on reserves."

Unfortunately, early stock housing has increased straw demand. A local winter shortage – and high prices – could be looming, reckons Alan. Farmers have chopped rather than baled in a bid to catch up lost time. "Well struggle to find any locally."

The contingency plan has been to buy feed, rather than use up precious straw, with oat feed purchased at £25/t delivered. Big-bale barley, he reckons, would cost more than that, especially when haulage is added.

Even though stock numbers are low, the Jacksons are not in any hurry to buy more, even though prices could tumble after the calf slaughter scheme disappears on Nov 30.

"Weve scaled down and established a suckler herd – specifically so we dont have to buy baby calves. I cant now just switch back to buying them because theyre cheaper."

The abolition of the calf scheme, soon after the Jacksons established their suckler herd, is one example of what they call the "moving goalposts" in farming.

Also causing frustration is the difference between what government tells farmers they should be doing and what it encourages and forces them to do. The beef special premium rules, for example, encourage people – desperate to get the second payment when the animals are 23 months old – to keep animals for too long, letting them get over-fat.

And the 90-animal ceiling on subsidy discourages expansion and efficiency. "Why not pay, say, £50 per beef animal – on an unlimited number? An arable man gets subsidy on all his ground even if hes got 10,000 acres."

Lorna Jackson aired such frustrations, joining a farmers wives protest at the Labour Party conference. "Ive never felt moved to protest before – but I had to do something," she says. "The Minister gave us encouraging words – but its action we want."

Silage analysis

DM (%) 30.7

D-value 65.3

ME (MJ/kgDM) 10.5

CP (%) 13.1

FARM FACTS

&#8226 A 280ha (690-acre) arable and grass unit in the north east, farmed by Alan and Lorna Jackson on a full agricultural tenancy from the Duke of Northumberland.

&#8226 Heavy land growing combinable crops and grass, 25% in the LFA.

&#8226 Continental cross beef cattle finished on semi-intensive system.

&#8226 British Milksheep producing prime lambs, plus small pedigree Suffolk and Texel enterprises.

&#8226 Two full-time employees, supplemented by casual labour.