A further cut in the organic milk price and a sharp decline in the organic lamb premium would probably cause many farmers to question moving away from conventional farming.
But George Perrott remains upbeat as he prepares the 2010/11 budget for his landowner, Clinton Devon Estates. Milk yields across the farm’s two 250-cow herds have stabilised after achieving full organic status this year, sheep prices are holding firm and cereal yields should improve next harvest, he says.
“As long as the euro doesn’t change too much, the lamb and milk price should be okay and I’m optimistic that the fertility we’re building up in the arable rotation will allow us to increase yields. I also think we’re really starting to turn a corner in terms of organic animal husbandry by being more pre-emptive with some of the problems.”
He reckons the 1300-head sheep flock has made “more money than ever” this year due to the strong lamb price, which is averaging around £65 a head after deductions. “We sold 500 with an organic premium at the beginning of the season, but since then we haven’t seen anything extra for being organic. In fact, we’ve seen £2 a head taken off because they’re clipped, which actually means we’re getting less for organic than conventional lamb. Hopefully once the economy picks up, people will come back to organic though.”
Perhaps the most noticeable benefit from being organic is in the arable part of the business. No artificial fertiliser or sprays are needed, and most of the farm’s reduced combinable crop tonnage is fed to the dairy cows, which minimises exposure to volatile markets and makes budgeting relatively straightforward, he says. “Thankfully we don’t really have to worry about what nitrogen or grain prices are doing,” he says.
The main uncertainty next year will be the milk price, which Dairy Crest has just cut by 1p/litre, on the back of OMSCo’s decision to cut its price, he says. “We still managed to average 37.73p/litre last month [October] for our spring-calving herd, which isn’t bad though.”
Average milk yields across the two herds have levelled out at 7100 to 7200 litres per cow, with generally good quality and butterfats. However, low milk protein levels are a concern, with the cause as yet unclear. Milk from autumn-calving cows is averaging 3.06% protein, compared with at least 3.2% normally. “It could be due to low energy content in the whole-crop silage, but it looks good and seems to be feeding well, plus conception rates are good which suggests the cows are getting enough energy.”
Mr Perrott reckons a more likely cause is liver fluke, which hit the sheep flock this summer and could have spread to the dairy herd. “We’ve never had a big fluke problem before on the farm, but the last couple of winters have caused a lot of flooding on the grazing land, which could have washed-in problems from upstream. The ewes and lambs move around the farm to graze and tidy off pasture, which could have easily spread the problem before we noticed it.”
In response Mr Perrott has increased the frequency of sheep testing to every three or four weeks and has changed the dairy health plan so that cows receive fluke control at drying off and youngstock are also tested. “We’ve got 300-400 acres of grass to move the cows about on, which can help reduce the problem,” he adds.
A big saving this autumn came from home saving all the farm’s organic cereal seed – about 60 tonnes in total. Mr Perrott estimates it cost about £250/t in total, which is around half the price of bought-in organic seed. The cost includes about £70/t for cleaning and royalties, plus a nominal £180/t for the value of the grain. “It’s the first year we’ve been able to do it having completed the organic conversion and it’s given us a genuine saving.”
Factored into next year’s budget will be around £100,000 for new machinery as part of the farm’s machinery replacement plan. The simple spreadsheet highlights when every item of kit was bought, how many hours it has done and when it is due for replacement, allowing Mr Perrott to stagger key purchases accordingly.
The items due for replacement in the coming year include one of the two Manitou telescopic handlers, two of the main tractors and the Pichon slurry tanker. “We also need a bigger rake to go with the new forager,” he adds.
Another area that will demand a large amount of attention over the next few months is the application to join the Higher Level Stewardship scheme. One 10ha field with an ancient monument beneath the surface is due to go into the scheme, along with a large amount of hedgerow and bank restoration. “I hope to get most of the Farm Environment Plan done before Christmas and if all goes well, hopefully we could be in a position to get some of the schemes under way next year and start receiving cash sometime in 2011.
“We’ve got something like 600km of hedges, countless in-field trees, as well as the historical features, so hopefully we should have a decent chance of getting accepted for HLS,” he adds.
December will see Mr Perrot conduct appraisals for all nine members of staff on the farm. The one-to-one meetings give every member of the team chance to highlight what they’ve liked and disliked over the past year and offer suggestions for what could be improved. “Man management is arguably the hardest part of my job, and these appraisals are a good way for people to get things off their chest in a constructive way. It also allows us to identify any extra training that’s needed.”
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