Pulse variability proves a big gamble for growers

Outputs from pea and bean crops must be more reliable to justify increasing their areas on arable farms after CAP reform, despite rotational benefits, says a farm manager from the UK’s leading farming company.

About 10% of Farmcare’s 21,200ha (52,400 acres) of combinable crops were sown with peas and beans, David Watson told last week’s HGCA conference.

The brake on expansion was their unpredictability, said Mr Watson, who oversees about 8000ha (20,000 acres) in the south east.

“We all know there are real advantages in having pulses in our rotations.

But we like crops to be consistent, and there is huge yield variability with spring beans and peas.”

Outlining Farmcare’s business model for the farms, all rented, Mr Watson said single farm payments could be achieved simply by keeping land in Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition.

To justify his role he had to maximise gross margins and minimise fixed costs.

That meant concentrating on first wheats for the firm’s purely combinable crop units.

“In this part of the world second wheats and barley are non-starters.”

The farms’ overall crop performances suggested while spring beans and peas could help spread fixed costs, they were too risky for increased sowings.

“Our aim is to maximise first wheats, so the starting point is a wheat/set-side rotation,” he said.

Outlining alternatives to boost income on a notional 2000ha (5000 acres) unit Mr Watson showed replacing much of the set-aside with winter oilseed rape and spring beans boosted gross output by £119,000.

But by the time the extra fixed costs, which included a third man, were taken into account there was little gain.

“Our fixed costs would increase by around £112,000 to buy us £119,000, a profit of only £7000.”

Easing the area of rape and beans to leave about a third still in set-aside allowed fixed costs to be stretched.

“I reckon we could manage with just two skilled men and some casual help.”

That would beat the profit from a pure wheat/set-aside rotation by £14,000, he calculated.

“It’s more attractive, but I would still not be particularly comfortable.”

Mr Watson said combining pulses could be tricky in difficult seasons, but stressed they did have

“real hidden benefits”.

“As spring breaks they give us more chance to control grassweeds, which is becoming essential where we have resistant blackgrass.

They improve soil fertility – there is no doubt about that.

We find we need 20kg/ha N less than normal on following wheats.

And with urea at £160-£200/t that equates to about £25/ha, which is a huge saving.”

With pulses there was the chance to grow added-value crops, he added.

“And they add spice to life by providing a challenge for staff bored with wheat and oilseed rape.”

There was also scope to improve winter bean’s consistently low yields, he believed.

“We still plough them in, but I am pretty sure that’s not the correct way to grow them.”


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