Arable farmers urged not to chop straw this harvest

Arable farmers are being urged to bale straw this harvest as values rise and livestock producers look further afield to find scarce supplies.

For wheat straw in the swath, prices are generally £74-111/ha (£30-45/acre) in Wales and the western half of England and between £37 and £62/ha (£15 and £25/acre) in the east, with the higher end of the scale accounting for local demand where there is only a short haul.

Ex-farm prices for old crop wheat straw this week are between £2 and £10/t higher than a year ago, depending on region. But some fear arable farmers may be tempted to chop straw this year as they face ever-higher fertiliser costs for the 2009 crop.

Andrew Holman of the British Hay & Straw Merchants’ Association said that in most years about half the national straw crop was baled. But due to export demand and the poor weather last harvest, there were almost no reserves this season and new-crop straw would be in great demand. “There are no reserve stocks – it’s the same as with grain. And we expect more demand from abroad, because the pound has weakened against the euro.

“There will be some money in baling straw this year. Although prices will vary from region to region, they will be slightly better than last year. For example, a New Holland 1010 bale is likely to be worth 10-15% more, to cover costs like diesel, twine and fertiliser.”

To secure sufficient supplies, it was essential that farmers, contractors and hauliers communicated effectively, he added.

Farm business consultant Guy Banham of Samuel Rose said farmers should consider the consequences of their decision on their business. “Whether you chop or bale, it should be a considered business decision, not just force of habit.”

In a switch to baling and selling straw instead of incorporating, farmers would face extra costs of baling, stacking and fertiliser to replace that lost from the crop. But this had to be balanced against cash from straw sales, coupled with less diesel used and avoiding the cost of deeper cultivations to incorporate straw.

Some farming systems would influence the decision, Mr Banham said. “Minimum tillage rape establishment systems suit straw removal to ensure maximum soil-to-seed contact, optimum establishment and minimum disease risk, so chopping the straw would require another pass to bury it. Other factors include extra compaction, reduced organic matter and reduced timeliness when straw is baled.”

Factors to consider

  • Combine fuel consumption – can be up to 30% lower when not chopping
  • Chopper blades can add £1000 a year to maintenance costs
  • Combine output higher when not chopping
  • Lower use of slug pellets if straw removed
  • Ease of cultivation if no straw

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