9 April 1999

Yield against costs as experts compete

PADLOCK the cheque book or push crops for top yield? That is the question farmers are asking across the land as crop margins and cashflows tighten.

"We were getting this thrown at us at every farmer meeting we staged in the winter and its even more of an issue now," says Dick Neale, technical manager of Wisbech, Cambs based distributor Hutchinsons.

To help provide an answer the company is staging a novel crop competition to show the value of using inputs appropriately.

While costs need containing Mr Neale warns against starving the crop of inputs it needs. "Last year people were cutting back hard on flag leaf sprays, to control costs, but were really hitting crop production. There is a real danger of the same thing happening again this year.

"Its not just that farmers are reluctant to spend on inputs, particularly where crops look poor. Some simply dont have the cashflow to do so," he admits.

"After last years poor harvest and low crop prices many say they simply cant afford to spend very much on sprays. But we would say they cant afford not to."

To prove the point the company has established a field-scale demonstration adjacent to one of its trials sites at A B Caves Chase Farm, Tilney All Saints, Norfolk.

"It is not meant to be a scientific trial, but a demonstration of how different input strategies can affect margins," explains marketing manager Felix Patton. "Weve set it up as an agronomists competition, which will go to yield and gross margin to decide the winner."

The 3.2ha (8 acre) of Consort after potatoes on medium silt is split into two blocks. One is being managed for maximum economic yield by a team led by Mr Neale. The other, led by colleague Alex Wilcox, is focusing on minimal costs consistent with producing a crop.

Despite late drilling the yield potential is felt to be 9t/ha (3.6t/acre), easy potato lifting having allowed a good seedbed. "Its a typical crop for the year – late sown and relatively late emerging, but free of disease so far. It is this sort of crop that will be difficult to manage correctly, not those drilled in September," notes Mr Neale.

Fungicide, fertiliser and growth regulator will all be varied, while establishment, insecticide and herbicide inputs are the same for both blocks.

"The aim is to look at the decision making process, which on too many farms just doesnt seem to be happening," says Mr Neale. Inputs must be matched by field, crop, farm and season, he insists. "This is not fine-tuning, it is bare basics.

"Growers are being tempted to cut inputs in the face of lower grain prices, but this may be counter-productive unless it is done with a scientific basis."

&#8226 Over the coming months FARMERS WEEKLY will report on the input decisions taken and the resulting crop responses. &#42

Input challenge – Dick Neale (left) and Alex Wilcox of Wisbeach, Cambs distributor Hutchinson are managing blocks of this Consort for top economic yield and least cost respectively. May the best man win!

&#8226 Severe pressure on spending.

&#8226 Cashflow concerns.

&#8226 Avoid arbitrary cuts.

&#8226 Match inputs to crop need.

&#8226 3.2ha demo to show how.