Archive Article: 2001/08/22

22 August 2001

The cost of a hedge

FEELING broke? Heres why. Youre spending £16m a year on looking after hedgerows. Feeling tired? Its not surprising. Youre putting in 1.5m hours – which is 41,000 weeks work – on maintaining, planting, cutting, and repairing the 300,000 miles of hedges in the UK.

We should quickly add that these figures are for all farmers – not just individuals – in case you were feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the job.

The NFUs latest survey of its members attached these values to the efforts put in by farmers on the stewardship of hedgerows. And the survey did not just comprise those environmental enthusiasts who have signed up to government schemes. Those canvassed are average farm businesses.

And yet we still see those tired old criticisms about farmers ripping up hedgerows and despoiling the countryside. It simply isnt true. Mistakes were made in the past, but the industry has learnt that a healthy hedgerow is an asset, not a liability. What a pity this message is not getting across.

Funding forecasts

BEFORE those scientists reading this rush to the attack, lets just get this straight at the start. We believe disease forecasting is a good idea. It has been very useful in combating virus in sugar beet, and blight in potatoes . But it cant be relied on in isolation. The best way of checking out the health of your crop is still to open the gate and have a look.

Courtesy of cash from Government, industry and from you, via the HGCA levy, scientists are now busy developing forecasting systems for oilseed rape diseases. One for light leaf spot is already up and running on the web; another for phoma is being developed, under a new project called Password, which also includes rape pests.

The background science that goes into the creation of a forecasting scheme is hugely valuable. We learn a lot about why these diseases spread – and how to combat them. But at the risk of sounding mealy-mouthed, the light leaf spot forecasting system is just not accurate enough to rule spray decisions by itself, and is not an alternative to scrutinising your crop.

Judge for yourself on and go to the growers pages. When more factors, more diseases and pests and more weather data are built into this forecast, its going to be a complicated beast but could growers rely on it and would they be willing to pay for it?

Do your N homework

YOU can have too much of a good thing. Potato growers are finding that out to their cost – nitrogen usage is still way too high, say the agronomists.

The wet winter and late plantings encouraged growers to up the N, but this was a mistake, leading to problems with crops failing to set skin and too much late growth. And we dont need to add that they also wasted money on unnecessary N in a year when costs were high.

It doesnt help that fertiliser advice can be confusing, contradictory and sometimes plain wrong. The new RB209 guidelines go some way to addressing the problem, but theres still too much uncertainty out there, on timings, rates and type of product.

When confusion reigns, then commercial companies step into the breach with a host of different recommendations. No wonder its hard for growers to sort out which is sound advice, and which is isnt. Heres one crop where more basic R&D is desperately needed.

The British Potato Council research review is a welcome first step. Dont be put off by the title; for once this is a scientific tome which is readable, controversial and debunks much nitrogen nonsense on potatoes. Its worth a making it your bedtime read; for copies, phone 01865 782270.

Fuelling the future

WHEN Peter Billins passes a big bale of straw, rotting in a field, he doesnt see a waste problem. He sees 330 litres of transport fuel, worth something like 70p/litre. No wonder theres a glint in his eye.

As chief executive of British Biogen, Mr Billins is a fervent advocate of bioethanol – motor fuel that can be produced from virtually any bio-waste. Hes hoping to build the countrys first biofuel plant early next year, which could take beet tops, potato waste, straw, you name it – and turn it into valuable fuel, which burns more efficiently and more cleanly than petrol.

Its a good news story for growers, for UK fuel bills, and for the environment. And hes looking for 4m tonnes of biomass, which you could be supplying.

Want to hear more? Come to our Crops Conferences, and listen to Mr Billins expound the future for "fuel" farming. Register on page 47.

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