Beleaguered, but some encouraging optimism
gloom in the arable
sector, this years
approach 2000 in
Andrew Blake takes a
detailed look at
prospects for the
NONE of this years regional representatives realistically expects 2000 to be more rewarding than 1999.
But tweaks to fixed costs and husbandry, planned or introduced, leave most encouragingly optimistic.
From Cornwall, where the Dale brothers have made drastic changes, to Scotland where James Grant Suttie admits Law Farmers may have been set up a year too soon, refinements to contain production costs in the face of low prices is a recurring theme.
In the south the retirement of a tractor driver, who is unlikely to be replaced, will impinge on John Chalcrafts operations.
Cheaper ways to establish crops are getting plenty of attention, though Tony Wright is wary of exacerbating resistant blackgrass in the Midlands, and the Easts Robert Salmon remains cautious about economies of scale.
Across the board there is a strong feeling that given an equal footing our barometer farms are as well placed as any to compete in world markets.
"The last thing we want to be are gloom and doom merchants," says the Norths Anthony Hornshaw. "We are not looking for hand-outs. All we want is a fair crack of the whip to survive in the real world.
• South-west Dairy scrapped for simpler all arable system.
• South Flexing to cope with fewer staff after retirement.
• West New soil mineral N tests to fine tune top dressing.
• East Liquid nitrogen introduced to protect environment.
• Midlands Exploring potato irrigation & no-till systems.
• North Diversification & tight cost control uppermost.
• Scotland Hopes still high for farm management group.
• N Ireland Earlier N and strobilurins planned for barley.
Sweeping change for south-west
A RECENT decision to scrap the loss-making 130-cow dairy herd at Restronguet Farm, Falmouth will give the Dale brothers more time to concentrate on arable matters and release capital, says Matthew.
"It will also give us a simpler system. Even if the arable only breaks even, we should have a much more enjoyable lifestyle. For the first time in my working life I shant have to milk on Christmas day."
Land released will partly be let for potato and cauliflower growing. "We shall also block crop much more to make things easier." The newly revamped grain drying set-up should also help.
Linseed will figure next spring, but spring beans will be reintroduced to assess their potential for replacing linseed as its area aid slides.
Most of the significant agronomy lessons which could be applied to wheat and barley have been adopted recently, believes Matthew. "We will certainly continue to cut seed rates. We went down to 1.1cwt/acre this year with the wheat and it looks superb. And we shall definitely repeat our use of pre-harvest Roundup. It saved us so much in terms of easier combining, cleaner sample and less drying."
Further ahead the Dales expect to draw increasingly from the environmental well with holiday cottage lettings adding good income. "The real way forward is to milk the green subsidies."
South reckons flexibilitys the key
FLEXIBILITY is the key to the future, according to John Chalcraft, who would be happy to repeat last seasons performance at New Farm, Kings Somborne, Hants.
"In the old days we used to work out our cropping plans and rotations five years ahead. Now we are driven almost entirely by subsidies. For example there will be one more year for linseed and then thats it."
But market opportunities cannot be ignored, he says. That and £40/ha (£16/acre) of extra arable aid accounts for the return of durum wheat to the farm after a break of 10 years. Maris Otter winter barley also continues to find a ready outlet through local merchant Robin Appel. Soyas future on the farm remains undecided.
Technically few mistakes were made last season, thanks largely to the help of Cleanacres Tom Blanchard, he says. "Chemically I am fairly confident we did the right things and no crops went down. We had everything in our favour. It was only the harvest weather that let us down."
Poor second wheat yield due mainly to take-all, he believes, has encouraged a much more concerted attack on couch.
"With our tractor driver George Brown retiring I am certainly looking at some of the newer drilling techniques to save costs and improve timeliness. Had it been a normal autumn we could have been in trouble this season."
One way forward in the west
FOR Andrew Cooke prices can only improve in the near future.
"I reckon 1999 hit the bottom, so logically the only way is up. If it gets any worse it will be only marginally so."
Cropping at North Farm, Felton Butler, Shropshire, will be little changed this season, spring beans again justifying their place. Potatoes will also be grown despite poor returns in 1999.
"Strobilurins gave us some great yield improvements, but they arent magic. You cant just open the can and waft them on. They must be used on crops that have the right structure and are not over-thick."
Sowing rates have been lowered, to about 200 seeds/sq m, to achieve more open, less mildew-prone stands. "We have certainly come down, but I would only go to 170 if we were drilling before October."
More cultivation and less ploughing have saved costs and helped slug control. "Every pass you make kills slugs. Compared with last year we have had very few."
Concern that most wheat was under-fertilised after last years wet winter means soil-mineral N tests are planned for the first time.
"I reckon we were probably 30 units/acre below optimum last year. The tests should give us more re-assurance because it is easy to overdo the N and have the crop all on the floor."
East cautious about expansion
MAKING money solely from arable farming is bound to be harder and more income will have to be derived from other as yet unspecified activities, says Robert Salmon.
Next years asparagus area at Hyde Hall, Great Fransham, Norfolk, has been doubled, but it remains a tiny fraction of the whole, he notes.
"We have got to have a sense of realism, so I do not really see how 2000 can be better than 1999. But at least the foundation laid this autumn bodes reasonably well.
"I still hope we can make a go of straight arable, although it may have to be on a bigger scale. But you have to remember that once you get to a certain size, bigger is not necessarily better.
"It is easy to take your eye off the ball and you could find yourself working harder on 2000 acres instead of 1500 for little extra. The danger is that you buy another drill and another tractor and end up with higher costs which defeats the object."
Cultivation flexibility on his sticky land remains a must, he stresses. "It is important to have a range of techniques appropriate for different seasons." Fortunately contracting work justifies being able to swap from discing to ploughing/pressing for the primary operation as required.
Main change this season is a switch to liquid from solid N fertiliser largely to keep granules from a twin-disc spreader out of hedges. "It is not so much about costs as striving to become more accurate and environmentally friendly."
Looking ahead C2 seed production appears increasingly uneconomic, he notes.
Irrigation on menu in the midlands
SEVERAL husbandry areas are up for detailed examination in 2000 at LCAH Farms as Tony Wright strives to develop the commercial demonstration unit for De Montfort University students.
"We still have scope to make further adjustments to our cost structure and move forward," he says. Number one on the potential shopping list at Elms Farm, Caythorpe, Lincs is irrigation to improve potato yield and quality. "It has been very clear this season that there is a reasonable market for first-class material, but very little for anything less than 100%. I am particularly interested in trickle systems.
"I am also keen to look into some form of minimal or no-till cultivation system for next autumn. We shall be obliged to go down that route if economic pressures stay as they are. I believe there is still a lot of scope for using different techniques on both cereals and oilseed rape.
"But we have got to be very careful about their effects on yield, and I want to set up some demonstrations and visit other people before making up my mind. If we are not careful we could end up in the same boat with grass weeds as we were in the 1970s with direct drilling."
Good results from strobilurins, especially on spring barley, guarantee their place again next summer. And despite the recent discovery of mildew resistance in the UK he does not intend to change his application policy. "We shall still continue with our repeat low dose strategy in mixtures with other fungicides as it has proved very successful and cost-efficient."
North adds tighter control to costs
WITH autumn establishment exceptionally good and grain prices already being talked down, Anthony Hornshaw would welcome a repeat of this years outcome at Croft Farms, Darlington.
"We shall be doing very well to do the same again. We had high yields with good quality and our costs were not outrageously high. If anything fertiliser and chemical prices came down."
The ability to spray everything this autumn without resorting to a quad-bike should lead to further savings. "Herbicides have worked well," he says.
"We are constantly re-evaluating our costs, whether so-called fixed or variable, but I do not foresee any drastic machinery changes. We shall stick with the plough with some form of following packer which works well on this land."
The main shift is likely to see the Simba model replaced by a Vaderstad machine demonstrated this autumn. "It did a much superior job in one pass instead of two and cut out some power harrowing."
Farming more land as opportunities arise and making the most of the diversification exercise into Christmas trees, now in their fourth year of full production (see p39), should help counter low arable prices, he believes.
Contract hopes high in Scotland
IN Scotland James Grant Suttie still believes contract farm management will help keep his East Lothian arable business successful.
Scope to farm more efficiently by running more land from Balgone Farms through the Law Farmers group has been limited in 1999, he admits.
"We thought the potential was there, but in truth there have been few opportunities. We are not interested in straightforward stubble to stubble contracts. But I am confident that opportunities will arise."
Technically he is not tempted to cut corners to accommodate lower output prices, and a sound rotation remains the cornerstone of operations at least into 2000. "We need breaks on our soils and we have not yet come to prairie farming here."
Good yields, which could suffer were he to pursue minimal cultivations, are still his main target.
"I do not see us making any sweeping changes in terms of husbandry. But the strobs are exciting. We used them last year for the first time on any scale, and I am sure they are worth using on any crop with good potential.
"I do not envisage becoming a brown envelope farmer, and we certainly should not be asking for more subsidies. We can compete at world prices, but I believe it is up to politicians to find the markets."
NIhas better start than last season
COMPARED with last season Graham Fureys crops at Castleview, Killyleagh are much better established.
"Conditions were virtually ideal. We were sowing at the right time and germination was very good. So we have the potential to begin with which makes me more optimistic and encourages us to look after the crops."
With almost no demand for locally grown milling wheat or malting barley, and organic production not tempting, high yields are a must to stay profitable, he says. Two key changes are planned to avoid repeating this years winter barley disappointment.
"I am very keen on the strobilurins. But I think we used them too late as a second spray on barley. It ripened too fast and they did not realise their full potential. This year I shall use them mainly as the first spray with perhaps some at the second timing."
More early nitrogen will also be applied. "Last year we used 35 units/acre on March 17. But because of the weather we could not get on again until the end of April which was too late.
"I would be wary of getting too much straw if we went to 70 units for the first dressing, but I shall probably raise it to 50."
Considerable changes to the farms machinery (Arable Nov 26), transforming the unit from a three- to a two-man operation, mean there is limited scope for further adjustment.
Mr Furey is not keen on recent modulation proposals. "Even here, where we consider ourselves small compared with farms in East Anglia, I would not be happy, because they would set a precedent for winding down our aid." *
More in store
Next week we take a snapshot of the entire arable industry, profiling the hopes and fears of the sector through the eyes of the many farmers who have supported farmers weeklys barometer series over the past ten years. And on Jan 7 we launch our Barometer 2000 series, visiting southern representative Simon Walter on Hayling Island, Hants where he is expanding alternative enterprises in a bid to prop up profits. Dont miss our industry-leading on-farm coverage.