Shining example of how to get alternative right

3 November 2000




Shining example of how to get alternative right

Developing alternative

enterprises can help protect

profits when combinable

crop prices tumble.

Edward Long finds out how

one N Lincs farm has been

pursuing retail outlets for

beetroot to underpin

arable margins

CLOSE day-to-day liaison with a local food processing factory enables an Isle of Axholme arable farm to produce beetroot that meets market requirements, minimise waste and plan future strategy.

Chris and David Moore grow 154ha (380 acres) of beetroot for WF Moore (Warplands) on grade 1 silt at Butterwick Grange Farm, West Butterwick near Scunthorpe.

The crop is slotted into an arable rotation which also includes 283ha (700 acres) of wheat, 40ha (100 acres) barley, 60ha (150 acres) potatoes and 32ha (80 acres) sugar beet.

"We keep in very close touch with the processor, it is the key to our success," says Chris Moore. "Talking to the company virtually every day is extremely valuable to both sides, we receive constant market feedback to enable us to react to changing demands."

Unwanted roots

Beetroot was first tried on the North Lincs farm 15 years ago when 11ha (27 acres) was grown for Axgro foods, the local beetroot packer. The crop performed reasonably well, but there was a lot of unwanted over-sized roots.

"Achieving the right size has always been a challenge as it is difficult to produce roots to a plan on this capping-prone land. But since those early days the market specification has changed dramatically."

Instead of taking 45-55mm premium pre-pack size roots, it now wants 45-75mm. So whilst 10 years ago 20% of the crop grown on the farm went to wholesale outlets or was sold for stockfeed, this has been reduced to 5%. This improvement has also been helped by changes in seed-bed preparation and drilling.

The crop used to be grown on twin rows spaced 50cm (20 inches) apart. Now 10 rows are drilled with a scatter row coulter across a 1.8m (6ft) wide bed.

Size variability is also affected by crop uniformity, the aim is to achieve a high but even germination. This is why seed-bed preparation is critical. This is now done with a Jones triple bed former behind a 170hp tractor with a seed hopper mounted on the front.

Establishing the crop has become a one-man job with twice the output of the two-man power harrow and separate precision drilling system used in the past. The change of policy has not only boosted root size uniformity, but also significantly reduced the farms labour costs.

The crop is drilled at staggered intervals from late March until late May and harvested between July and late November with a Kverneland bed harvester which is also used for potatoes. The first liftings yield 15t/ha (6t/acre) and main season crops give 50t/ha (20 t/acre).

"We do try to keep the lid on costs and won the farmers weekly/BASF unit cost challenge for wheat this year. But we have had to invest a lot of money to maintain yields and quality of beetroot to meet the processors needs," Chris Moore points out.

"We have spent over £100,000 on two new 1000t cold stores to buffer the crop over the tail end of winter to keep the factory supplied until the new season crop comes in from Portugal and Cyprus in early summer. We have also invested £65,000 in a new grading line and expect soon to have to buy a pre-washer."

A lot has been spent on field rationalisation, drainage, and construction of concrete roads. Average field size used to be 5ha (12.5 acres) but is now closer to 20ha (50 acres). This, and the investment in a bed harvester, has also benefited the potatoes.

Diversification

About 70% of the Maris Piper and Cara grown at Butterwick Grange Farm go for pre-packing, the rest are delivered to Axgro. Recently the processor has diversified into other crops, which offers scope for Chris and David Moore as new value-added markets open up. They can see that in five years time 70% of their crop will go to the nearby factory.

"We always seemed to end up with a lot of small potatoes and because the pre-pack market no longer seems to want 45mm tubers we had a lot spare for seed and stockfeed. Then 10 years ago at one of our regular meetings we suggested to the factory these were a valuable commodity worth exploiting. They decided to de-skin, cook and vacuum pack them on the beetroot line as a convenience food for caterers."

Increasingly the market reflects consumer demands for reduced pesticide use and product traceability. The brothers saw this coming, another benefit gained from the regular meetings, and have been able to adapt their production system to suit.

That involved cutting out insurance spraying, using pesticides with the least impact on the environment, and investing in a boom irrigator for beetroot. Now in a dry season when cutworm threaten water is used instead of chlorpyrifos insecticide to keep it at bay. A build-up of pallida nematodes means potatoes are now grown on a wider rotation, 1:7 instead of 1:5.

Under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme 6m wide buffer zones have been created alongside water courses around the whole farm.

"We have benefited hugely over the years from intelligence gained from our close liaison with the food factory and expect this to continue. We have already seen the rapidly escalating interest in organic produce and are planning to convert a part of the farm. A neighbour has a substantial acreage that has already been converted and we may be able to co-operate to produce organic beetroot," Chris Moore says.

MOORES TEN TIPS

1) Study the market.

2) Talk to processors/consumers.

3) Consider if their needs can be met.

4) Be realistic, throw away the rose-tinted spectacles.

5) Keep an open mind.

6) Be prepared to change tack.

7) Be prepared to invest in infra-structure.

8) Consider how any change will affect fixed costs.

9) Consider whether the soil is suitable for autumn harvesting.

10) Exploit advantages.

Meeting market needs is the key to alternative crop success, say NLincs growers Chris and David Moore, pictured here with just some of the products currently grown on their siltland farm.

Moores ten tips

1) Study the market.

2) Talk to processors/consumers.

3) Consider if their needs can be met.

4) Be realistic, throw away the rose-tinted spectacles.

5) Keep an open mind.

6) Be prepared to change tack.

7) Be prepared to invest in infra-structure.

8) Consider how any change will affect fixed costs.

9) Consider whether the soil is suitable for autumn harvesting.

10) Exploit advantages.


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