Opinion: Farmers should see three-crop rule as opportunity

Complying with the three-crop rule should not be as costly and arduous as many British growers fear, our analysis shows.

Little or no rotational change will be necessary for the vast majority of arable farms facing crop diversification regulations coming into force from next January – especially as the rules will be applied on a farm business rather than holding basis.

Equally, any issues that do arise can be addressed by changes to current rotations – something that is unlikely to have any negative effect on farm margins.

Crop diversification is very manageable for almost everyone. Even for most of those not currently growing three crops, it only affects a very small proportion of the farmed area – in most cases just the 5% that has to be in a third crop.

Paul Pickford
Head of farm business consultancy

Not only that, but there are plenty of rotational solutions available, many of which at least maintain arable margins while offering a number of other valuable benefits.

It’s all a matter of looking at your setup closely and, if necessary, assessing the options for your particular business in an open-minded way with the right guidance. That’s why we’ve equipped our agronomists with a computer-based planner linked to our enterprise costings database.

The planner explores the implications of several options for arable businesses likely to be most affected by the three-crop rule – those currently running wheat-wheat-rape rotations or growing continuous wheat. And the results are particularly encouraging.

Crop diversification at a glance

  • Farms with more than 30ha of arable must grow three crops
  • Up to 75% of the farmed area can be in crop one
  • Crops 1 and 2 can occupy up to 95% of the farmed area
  • A minimum of 5% of the farmed area has to be in Crop 3

For a typical 200ha winter wheat and winter rape business, at reasonable yields, crop values and input costs, swapping 10ha of second wheat for spring wheat or rape to satisfy the three-crop requirement will make little – if any – difference to the whole-farm gross margin (Table 1).

The same goes for taking 50ha out of 200ha of continuous wheat to establish a second rotation of winter barley and spring wheat, with the alternative of 75ha rotated between winter wheat, winter barley and oilseed rape actually delivering a significant margin increase (Table 2).

Simple comparisons show how small the negative effect of the three-crop rule is likely to be for most growers, even if rotational changes are required. What’s more, they don’t account for the fact that the least productive or most troublesome second wheat land will almost certainly be used for the spring cropping, allowing far better grassweed control.

The spread in key operations such as drilling, spraying and harvesting enabled by spring cropping and the easing of workload pinch-points at critical times in the season is likely to deliver further benefits.

Of course, it’s easy to play around with average figures. What you really need to do is sit down with your agronomist and use our planner to work through the most practicable options for your own farm using your cropping records, costs and experience. Take into account any crop storage and marketing or machinery and workload implications of possible changes.

That way you can see for yourself exactly how much – or how little – the diversification requirements will actually affect you, and decide your best course of action ahead of autumn planting so you have everything in place for January 2015.

In fact, regardless of the new rules, I would strongly recommend as many growers as possible undertake this sort of exercise. Looking a little bit harder at what you’re doing and what it’s delivering against a range of practical alternatives can be very instructive. More often than not, it prompts changes that prove extremely worthwhile.

    Table 1: Wheat-wheat-rape alternative margin comparisons
Cropping  Area (ha)  Yield (t/ha)  Gross margin (£) 
First winter wheat (feed)  67  10.0  
Second winter wheat  66 8.0  
Winter oilseed rape  67 4.0  
Total gross margin      143,318 
First winter wheat (feed)  67 10.0  
Second winter wheat  56 8.0  
Winter oilseed rape  67 4.0  
Spring wheat (milling)  10 6.0  
Total gross margin      143,885 
First winter wheat (feed)   67 10.0  
Second winter wheat  56 8.0  
Winter oilseed rape  67 4.0  
Spring oilseed rape  10  3.2  
Total gross margin      143,241 
Assuming feed wheat prices of £137/t and OSR prices of £266/t    


    Table 2: Continuous wheat alternative margin comparisons
Cropping  Area (ha)  Yield (t/ha)  Gross margin (£)
Continuous winter wheat (feed) 200  9.0  
Total gross margin      136,330 
Continuous winter wheat (feed)  150  9.0  
Winter barley (feed)  25  8.0  
Spring wheat (milling)  25 6.0  
Total gross margin      136,574 
Continuous winter wheat (feed)  125  9.0  
First winter wheat (feed)  25  10.0  
Winter barley (feed)  25  8.0  
Winter oilseed rape  25  4.0  
Total gross margin      158,787 
Assuming feed wheat prices of £137/t and OSR prices of £266/t   


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