DAVID RICHARDSON

23 November 2001




DAVID RICHARDSON

The full cost of last

seasons crop failures is

still being calculated,

but the early indications

do not point to a bumper

year next season, either

OUR accountants are calculating our results to last Michaelmas. I am not looking forward to what they discover because I already know that profits, or the opposite, will be worse than last year.

Grain prices may have gone up a bit since 2000, but yields and the area harvested were both down. You only had to look at how much unoccupied space there was in the barn at the end of harvest to know cash returns would be disappointing.

The wet autumn and winter of 2000/01 took their toll. And although we, somehow, managed to get our intended autumn drillings completed, not all survived. We might have been better copying some of our neighbours, who stopped trying to drill after mid-November last year.

Then again, we had one field of winter wheat drilled on the frost after sugar beet was lifted in late January, which yielded better than fields we forced in three months earlier. So, you could argue either way and those farmers who did not drill autumn corn did little better with spring crops. They were still having problems planting as the wet continued through April.

But most fields of winter corn in this predominantly Grade 3 land area had big patches that never made it to harvest. And although where crops did survive yields were respectable, those bare patches dragged down the average. We, anyway, were left with an out-turn insufficient to cover costs inflated by the appalling soil conditions. I can only be grateful we sold a significant proportion of the harvest while values were still about £80/t. Will we see as much again this year?

Our prize for worst crop of the year was won by spring beans, nominally grown for seed. Both yield and quality were dreadful and we ended up selling them for pig feed. Soya beans, on the other hand, did better. Grown on this farm for the first time this year and harvested in late September, they are still sitting in the barn. But they appear to have yielded a bit over 2.4t/ha (1t/acre). They, too, are for seed, and we have been told the germination is OK. Which means, together with the seed premium and the area payment, the crop should do about as well as wheat, but with obvious rotational advantages. In any event, we will try another field next year.

Perhaps the nicest surprise of the year, albeit a modest one, is the sugar beet. Drilled very late, it could easily have been a disaster. But although it is yielding far short of a record, it has caught up remarkably to produce near average yields and sugar content. The biggest ongoing worry with the crop is that harvesting is behind schedule. Why? A combination of wanting to leave it in the land as long as possible to maximise yield, and another wet autumn making harvesting slow and difficult.

Add to that the inexplicable extraction problems being experienced by British Sugar, especially at their flagship Wissington factory in the fens, and the resulting knock-on effect to other factories which, as a consequence, are having to process extra beet and you will see that sugar beet problems are not over yet.

Furthermore, the delayed campaign means slower payment by British Sugar and less money in the bank than anticipated. And although it will get there eventually, always assuming we get the crop lifted out of the still saturated land, cash flow is adversely affected.

Now, as we turn to ploughing in muck and preparing land for planting to sugar beet and other crops next spring, I am sorry to say that on some fields we are turning up the remains of the mud we buried last year. Its not wet but it has that sort of stained appearance and I wonder what effect it may have on next years crops. It is, I fear, unlikely to do them much good. The legacies of last winter may not be over yet.

Not that this winter, so far, has been much better in this area. Once again we have had well above average rainfall, although there have been a few fine spells when we have at least been able to catch up with some of the work. But, as I implied on this page a few weeks ago, if this is the weather pattern of the future there is an urgent need to find other viable cropping systems, perhaps entirely new crops, to replace those that are becoming so difficult. I hope and trust the much-diminished UK agricultural research sector has this high on its agenda.

Meanwhile, like everyone else in this sad industry, we are looking around for another diversification to try to earn some money. I read that advice is free from ADAS and we shall probably take advantage of that. But I am not optimistic that such advice will be all that valuable. For if ADAS is recommending the same things to every Tom, Dick and Harry, it seems likely they may soon be overdone. But coming up with your own innovative ideas isnt easy either.


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