OPINION: We’ve always battled the variables

I visited a farmer in Germany just after set-aside was introduced across Europe many years ago.

He had a scientific background and had worked in the seeds business before returning to run the family farm. He was probably the greatest perfectionist I‘ve ever met.

Yield mapping on combines was in its infancy and he had adopted it enthusiastically to the point where he had set aside his lowest-yielding land to comply with set-aside rules wherever it showed on his yield records. The result was a farm that looked like a contour map with the best land being planted and the rest, in various shapes, set-aside.

To pursue his quest to optimise production further, he had designed and had built a grain drill that he believed would plant each seed at the same depth. “It is my objective,” he told me as we watched the machine planting wheat, “zat each seedling should emerge during ze same afternoon”.

Few of us would seek such precision, far less achieve it.There are too many other variables that we can’t control that can influence the output of a crop between planting and harvest for such obsessive exactitude to seem worthwhile. That said we all do our best within the limits of our soil and our tackle to provide the best possible conditions for emergence and growth.

But a field is not a factory where levels of moisture, temperature and sunlight can be controlled through the year. Nor is it always possible to achieve good conditions for drilling, as recent experience has shown.

Last year soils were muddy from early autumn onwards. Many of us waited for conditions to improve before attempting to drill. Some of us ran out of patience and drilled anyway, only to experience widespread crop failure. Others waited in vain for drier weather and never did get autumn crops planted.

The winter was cold and extended and spring crops, drilled as replacements for failed winter sowings and new plantings, went into soils too cold for quick emergence. Such are the frustrations of arable farming and we should count ourselves fortunate to have combined the yields we did last harvest.

This autumn, taking our cue from 2012 and determined not to be caught out and be unable to drill into wet land again, most of us rushed out with our tackle a few weeks earlier than usual. Like most of our neighbours we were drilling oilseed rape by mid-August and wheat before the middle of September while the land was in good order. And as I look out across our fields today, I see crops that our fathers would have said will go into the winter far too “winter proud”.

Will they suffer much when winter frosts and snow arrive? Time will tell. Although I am bound to say I’m feeling more confident about this autumn’s early sown crops than I was last. Moreover, later sowings this autumn might now be as wet as last year.

But one of the biggest variables of all these days is value. Last year the November price of feed wheat was almost £200/t. This year you’d be lucky to get £40/t less than that despite recent rises because of problems in Russia.

Back when I was visiting my German friend we had an intervention system. Prices were predictable and stable. How times change. But I dare say he, and the rest of us in our way, will keep trying to optimise yields. It’s what we do, despite the variables outside our control.

David Richardson farms about 400ha of arable land near Norwich, Norfolk, in partnership with his wife Lorna. His son Rob is farm manager

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