Fingers crossed for a better yield

Crop performance.

That’s the sole farming driver for Andrew Gloag at Busby House Farm, Stokesley.

And the key question is how long the business can continue without better commodity prices, lower inputs costs or, better still, a combination of the two.

After a relatively poor 2005 harvest his mainly contracting operation will have done well to have broken even.

But the heavy land just to the north of the North Yorks moors can deliver some of the highest winter crop yields in the country, and a repeat of 2004 levels would at least provide a breathing space.

All the cereals are for feed, and the only spring crop is beans on some lighter land.

“This type of farming is unsustainable at 2005 yields, with prices and costs as they are,” says Mr Gloag.

“The only buffer we appear to have is performance.”

Last year’s mean first wheat output was over 4t/acre and barley averaged 3.5t/acre.

“But we did up to 5t/acre of wheat in 2003 and 2004 and we have had up to 4t/acre of barley.”

The biggest disappointment last harvest was oilseed rape, which delivered only 24cwt/acre after suffering autumn waterlogging.

“We need to see it at 34cwt/acre.

Average performance is just not good enough any more.”

With only 113ha (280 acres) of arable of his own, Mr Gloag says that essentially he remains a small farmer.

But since taking over after his father died unexpectedly in 1984 he has expanded the arable farm contracting business to 1093ha (2700 acres), through “stubble-to-stubble” profit-sharing agreements, and most recently in collaboration with neighbours.

“At the moment we farm with 10 farmers within 15 miles, but altogether we drill 4000 acres and combine over 3500.”

Last year’s poor results were the direct legacy of the sodden summer and autumn of 2004, he believes.

And an underlying concern, reinforced by the farm’s rainfall records, is the changing local climate.

“We do seem to be getting wetter summers and autumns.

“On our soil crops just don’t perform if they are sown late.

An inch of rain in September is fine, but an inch in early October means we are on a slippery slope.

So we aim to have all our first wheats sown by 10 September and to have everything drilled up by the first week in October.”

Achieving that goal involves having adequate machinery and a willing team of four full-time men.

Until 1999 most crop establishment was plough-based.

But then, to speed the task, a disc-based reduced cultivation regime was introduced.

“We very soon found that, although it was quicker, we were having to subsoil regularly, which was getting very expensive.”

Today’s system is based on Simba Solos for the initial work, then up to three passes with a Cultipress followed by a 6m Vaderstad drill hauled by a light-treading Challenger 55.

But ensuring the correct balance between timeliness and over-capacity is a tough call, says Mr Gloag.

“We have just bought an extra Simba Solo and another John Deere 8410, so we need to expand, but the land must be capable of a high yields and a decent return.”

Fortunately, the fields are blackgrass-free, the main weed problem being sterile brome largely on headlands.

BASIS-qualified, Mr Gloag draws agronomy advice from both TAG, via its nearby trials on a former Barometer farm, and from Nigel Foster of Phoenix Agronomy.

He accepts that by drilling early he is inevitably locked into a high input system needing take-all seed treatment and robust nitrogen dressings.

“But we do usually manage to get wide enough windows for stale seed-beds.”