Harvest hopes are rising
Hopes are rising for a better-
than-expected harvest at
Hoe Hall – provided the
Robert Harris reports
SCARCELY a drop of rain has fallen in the past month at Hoe Hall. Although some crops would benefit from a good soak, owner James Keith is not too concerned.
"We had a few drops at the end of last week, but we really need about 24 hours of steady rain to help peas and beans along. The barley is OK – the spring crop was drilled in early January and has looked well all season. It, like the winter crop, is now on the turn.
"Wheat could do with a bit of moisture, though it is all first wheat drilled in early September, so it got its roots down. In dry years, we seem to worry that grains are not filling because its too dry, but sunshine makes bushel weight, and bushel weight makes yield. Im hoping for a pleasant surprise."
Better yields, higher prices and lower costs should combine to produce a budget-beating performance this year.
Winter wheat yield, pencilled in at 9t/ha (3.6t/acre) across 266ha (657 acres) back in December, now looks slightly conservative, says arable manager Simon Brock. "But we did our budgets after weeks of torrential rain when many crops looked appalling," he adds.
Prices were also weaker back then, struggling to recover from seasonal lows when feed wheat dropped below £60/t. "We went for £69/t, but hopefully that will be comfortably beaten," says Mr Brock.
Certainly, Mr Keith has made a good start. Although most cereals and oilseed rape are sold through local selling group, SEFA, he markets produce from an off-lying farm at nearby Shipdham.
A 100t parcel of Claire feed wheat made £78/t ex-farm for November. "I dipped my toe in the water, and may do again. The price has slipped a couple of £s, but hopefully it will come back." Its a long time to get to the close of the marketing year, and sterling may slip a bit against the euro.
Barley output should make budget. The 180ha (445 acres) of winter crop, mainly Pearl for malting, is expected to yield 7.5t/ha (3t/acre) and achieve £75/t. A further 77ha (190 acres) of Optic spring barley should yield around 6t/ha, but is expected to make £10/t more.
Oilseed rape is the main unknown, especially yield. "We had hoped for 3.4t/ha, but we shall be lucky to get 3t/ha," says Mr Brock. Fortunately, with 120ha (296 acres) to cut, prices are ahead of the forecast £130/t.
Mr Keith recently sold 250t at £136-137/t off the combine, and the farm usually achieves a £5/t oil bonus too. The move is a marked change from established policy. Rapeseed is usually moved to a commercial store to leave plenty of room for other crops.
"Over the past few seasons, the increase in price has only matched the cost of storage. Selling early should therefore leave me better off, if you include interest charges, and will help cash-flow too."
Significant savings on inputs – mainly fungicides – due to the long dry spell will also help boost the arable units financial performance, says Mr Brock. "On nearly every crop we have saved about £30/ha compared with budget. Wheats are the cleanest they have been for years, and apart from a little bit of rhyncho on the Optic, barleys have had no disease problems either."
Mr Brock has also been busy planning next seasons cropping. The main change will be halving the area of oilseed rape and replacing it with more winter beans. A £50/ha cut in area aid, mainly due to Agenda 2000 reforms, means that winter beans are likely to return a much better gross margin in 2002 (see table).
"I need to keep some oilseed rape to spread the workload, and allow a decent early entry for wheat. But beans are easy to grow and harvest. Oilseed rape is tricky to establish on the heavier areas, and pigeons are becoming a real pain."
Problems on the outdoor pig unit continue, with the wasting disease PDNS now confirmed on one of the off-lying organic finishing units. This, combined with a reluctance to feed in hot weather, has hit performance hard.
"The disease has not affected mortality unduly, but it has allowed pneumonia in. Its creating havoc," says Mr Keith. "We are supposed to finish 100 pigs a week for Waitrose, but this has dropped to 50."
Pigs are taking at least two weeks longer than usual to finish, and they are killing out at just 60kg, rather than the 70kg target.
"We are losing £5500-6000 in sales a week, and thats been going on for five weeks. It will probably take another month before the last of the 1000 pigs that were on this finishing site are out of the system."
Mr Keith has also had to battle to contain insurance costs. His insurer recently announced it was more than doubling the farms £4800 motor insurance bill. "We have had several smallish claims, and a bigger one for the combine last harvest, when some metal went up inside it. But I wouldnt say our claims were anything out of the ordinary.
"To make matters worse, the company rang at five to five on a Friday night to renew the policy from Monday. I was on holiday, but fortunately Simon arranged a weeks temporary cover to give us time to sort it out," says Mr Keith.
"I have since moved back to the NFU Mutual, who offered to insure me for a sum half way between the old and the new premium. I went rather cap in hand – I moved from them to Axa via an agent four years ago."
On a happier note, Mr Keith is looking forward to taking up a new role with SCATS/Grainfarmers as a non-executive director.
"I jumped at the chance," he says. "The company is a progressive, farmer-owned business and it is bucking the trend. At a time when others are reining in, it is moving forward, from being a southern co-op to the fourth-biggest grain trader in the country in a couple of years." *
Hoe Hall gross margin forecasts – 2002
1st W wheat W barley S barley OSR W beans Peas
Yields (t/ha) 10 7.5 6.5 3.2 5 4.5
Price (£/t) 73 75 84 138 90 87
Area aid 213 213 213 213 246 246
Output 943 775 759 654 696 637
Inputs 275 225 185 200 160 165
Gross margin 668 550 574 454 536 472