6 November 1999

Winner pares costs to


The results of the World Class Wheat contest are in, and a £1,000 cheque awaits our winner. Gilly Johnson reports.

BIG is not necessarily best. The proof is supplied by Robin Bartleet, our Colchester grower who takes the top prize in our World Class Wheat competition.

His crop of Riband delivered a more than respectable yield – nearly 11t/ha (4.4t/acre). But with the familys arable business comprising 217ha (536 acres) at Great Tey, Essex, it isnt a case of economies of scale. Other contenders were farming far larger areas, which helped dilute those fixed costs.

No: for Mr Bartleet, it was low variable costs that tipped the balance in his favour. His spend on sprays and fertiliser worked out at just £190/ha (£77/acre) – less than the other finalists. This brings his production costs per tonne down to just £51.15, which earns him a cheque worth £1,000 as winner.

The Riband also passed muster on quality, which was one of the conditions of entry. Specific weight came in at just below 80kg/hl, which puts the sample in the running for a biscuit premium as well.

A combination of canny buying and "appropriate" treatment worked well; Mr Bartleets BASIS qualification comes in handy. Disease-susceptible Riband isnt an easy variety to manage, but having experience of its weaknesses, he was able to keep on top of problems and the crop was clean.

Strobilurins this year may have helped boost yield, but Mr Bartleet is still cautious about their cost-effectiveness. Certainly the Riband came in well above the farms five year average of 8.7t/ha (3.5t/acre) although this includes second wheats; Mr Bartleet will be using strobs again this year "but not at full rates. Its fair to say weve had good results from the old chemistry too…"

Weed control proved more tricky than disease. Late drilling, caused by the wet autumn, put the blackgrass herbicide schedule into disarray. Spring treatments kept on top of the problem, but cleavers then made a surprise appearance late on.

Running a family business, Mr Bartleet knows about making do and mend. Some of his equipment has seen better days – a well used Track Marshall has been kept in service for 23 years which puts a depreciation charge into context…

But although hes loathe to spend on machinery, he has not skimped putting the time and investment into accurate crop recording, and the business is accredited as a member of the Assured Combinable Crops Scheme (ACCS).

"Were thrilled to have won this award. But were not going to stand still." Mr Bartleet is considering abandoning old favourite Riband in favour of higher output newcomers. This season hes trying out some new wheats as a comparison. "Ill be sad to lose Riband – it suits this farm, and weve had good results, despite the disease weaknesses. Its so consistent that in fact it is easy to manage, because you know just what you are dealing with."

"Improvements to performance could be made – other peoples yields in this competition show we could be doing much better. Wheat takes up half the acreage here and must pay its way."

Lowdown on other


IT WAS a close run fight between the top three "lean and mean" contenders. On paper, Jack Hammond of Norfolk should have won – his staggeringly high yield of Equinox, which weighed in at 12.1t/ha (4.9t/acre), diluted relatively high costs. This brought production costs per tonne to just £49.74/t – a whisker below our winner.

But the poor quality let Mr Hammond down; specific weights were well below the 72kg/hl standard. Late fusarium infection wont have helped. And in the harvest rush, he wasnt able to keep the grain separate, which complicated the judging process.

Mr Hammonds fertile soil had the potential to give the highest yield. So its heartening to note that Tony Bradley, despite farming on thin, downland soil in Hampshire, managed to coax a superb 11.5t/ha (4.7t/acre) yield from Consort, which offset slightly his higher costs.

The clear message is that whether on fertile silts or thin brash, high yield is the fastest route to lowering production costs. And it may be necessary to spend more to achieve these. Yield is where Richard Bruce-White in Wilts lost out – his Consort came in at less than he was hoping for, though still a perfectly respectable 10.3t/ha (4.2t/acre). If the crop had delivered just a little more, then Mr Bruce-Whites low spray bill and other costs could have tipped the balance.

But high up in the north Yorkshire hills, Gordon Davison showed just how cheaply a crop can be established when youre running a smaller family business and have no option but to make machinery earn its keep. His costs on sandy loam were lowest of all. And the yield – 9t/ha (3.6t/acre) – isnt the whole story; Mr Davison grew milling wheat Hereward which will have earned him a healthy premium. But unfortunately for him, end price is not taken into account when calculating production costs per tonne, so he moves down the ranking.

High spray costs worked against Colin Swinnerton in Staffordshire. But his other costs were low, and if only the Rialto had turned in more than the 9.6t/ha (3.9t/acre), he might have improved his chances. The position of his land on the urban fringe didnt help, because the high land value is taken into account in the costings.

All these contenders did well, in that production costs per tonne for everyone are below £63/t. That is, all bar one. A special mention for profit performance must go to George Scales of Essex.

The grain from his crop of thatching straw was produced at a whopping £119/t, because of the high costs of growing a long strawed, disease susceptible old variety. But given that his thatching straw sells at a huge margin, theres no doubt that Mr Scales gross margin will have been perhaps three times that of the others. Sadly for him, the straw revenue cant be included in the calculation for the purposes of this competition – but hell have the satisfaction of seeing healthy returns instead.

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