Autumn rain puts drilling programme in jeopardy

THERE ARE still more than 400ha (1000 acres) of crops left to go in the ground on Sir Richard Sutton’s Settled Estates near Market Rasen, Lincs, and farms manager Chris Dowse doubts whether some will be drilled at all.

At the moment there are still 300ha (750 acres) of wheat left to drill and 120ha (300 acres) of winter beans.

“The heavier land is absolutely sodden and there are about 150 acres where it is doubtful if we will plant winter crops,” says Mr Dowse. “I will have to give some serious thought as to what we should do instead.”

In all likelihood this probably means spring wheat or barley, as the land is high yielding, but Mr Dowse says that, as subsidy payments will be decoupled for next harvest, he will have to ask the question as to whether to grow anything at all.

“Everything will now be driven by the single farm payment. If you can”t make a sensible margin, it might be better to leave the land fallow, satisfy the cross-compliance measures and just claim the payment.”

This pragmatic view is why Mr Dowse is so excited by the provisional results of his minimum inputs experiment where three wheat varieties were grown using far lower levels of nitrogen and fungicide than normal on 63ha (155 acres) of the estate’s lighter, more marginal soils. P and K levels were not tampered with. “They are absolutely fascinating; what they show is that in a low yielding year – and it has been a very low yielding year in north Lincs – the low input fields have produced a gross margin that is similar to, or in some cases in excess of, conventional wheat production. Even the fields with no fungicide were similar.”

Although the yields were unsurprisingly poorer – down by about 1.5t-1.7t/ha (0.6-0.7t/acre) – the substantially lower input costs – £173/ha (£70/acre) compared with £292/ha (£118/acre) – more than made up for this.

But Mr Dowse says he is still treating the results with caution. “The yield results are from the combine mapper, so they could be slightly optimistic.” And he is not sure if the figures will stack up so well in a more productive season. “This is just a snapshot of one year, but it has been a funny year and I suppose the weather affected all the crops equally.”

more low input

Nevertheless, he is encouraged enough to repeat the trials again and may even increase the acreage and add another crop. “This has really amazed me and spurred me into doing more work; I might try with oilseed rape as well.

“I won’t be doing it on 4t/acre land, where you can be confident of making a margin even without the single farm payment. But some of our Wold land might only yield 3t/acre some years and, with wheat at £60/t, you can’t make a margin on that.”

Mr Dowse is also keen to maximise the estate’s environmental payments under the new entry level or higher tier schemes and can’t see why a low inputs scheme should not qualify. “If we start pulling back on inputs there will beneficial effects on aquifers, insects and biodiversity in general.”

Plant breeders will also have to start changing their priorities, he reckons. “Over the years they have gone flat out for yield because the chemicals were available to control disease. Now yields may not be the main driver there is a clear case for going for varieties with the greatest disease resistance. The drivers will now be margin and cost.”

One significant extra cost that the estate will be forced to stomach this season is seed. Mr Dowse usually grows most of the wheat seed himself, but the dreadful weather has wiped out the viability of the entire crop. “As a rule of thumb using home-grown seed saves us about £10/acre, so this is a big hit to take.”

The incessant rain is also affecting the oilseed rape establishment. “It is worrying me quite a lot,” he says. “It is not as big going into the winter as I would like.”

But there are some bright spots to mitigate the pain. The sugar beet harvest is progressing well as much of the crop is grown on lighter land where the contract harvesters can still operate. And Mr Dowse is pleased with the yields and sugar content, 17t/acre and 17.24%, respectively.

“I thought the sugar would be lower because of the lack of sunshine and I am relaxed about the yields. We don’t want a huge heap of C beet,” he says.

Orders for his Lincoln Red boxed beef are also mounting up. This year three bullocks were slaughtered and double that is planned for 2005. “We have already sold one and a half animals in advance. There has been no advertising, it has all been through word of mouth,” says Mr Dowse.

Expanding the herd by putting down some of the estate’s arable land to grass could be an option after decoupling, but even with a premium boxed product Mr Dowse is not sure if beef will remain profitable without support payments.

But the undoubted highlight of the autumn for the estate has been winning the Silver Lapwing award for England. Said to be the most prestigious farming and conservation competition, it recognises the estate’s policy of trying to spread environmental benefits across the whole estate while maintaining a viable commercial business. The overall winner for the UK will be announced later this month. “We are very excited,” says Mr Dowse.