Weather and economics force system change

30 October 1998




Weather and economics force system change

Changes are being forced on

the farming system at

Whelan Farms by both the

weather and the financial

outlook. Suzie Horne reports

YEAR end figures to September 30 show a 28% drop in gross margin for the whole farm to £272,000, a fall of £108,000 compared with last year.

That is the state of the number two account, which runs the contract farming operation.

From this, Sentrys contract charge per acre has to be deducted after the landowner has been paid his first charge. Like many other contract farming results this year, it will leave only a slim surplus to share between the two after that.

Income across arable, dairy and sheep enterprises was down £143,000 on last year at £607,000, though costs, which had been budgeted at the same level as 1997, were wrestled down to £330,000, a £40,000 saving on budget.

"Arable prices averaged about 20% down on budget giving a £50,000 shortfall, and yields were down, although wheats at 3.12t/acre were around the farms five-year average," says manager, Robert Kilby. "However, seed, fertiliser and spray savings alone were £20,000 and I think there will be more to come this year.

"The cows finished the year at 7,600 litres, and we produced 100,000 litres more than last year with 15 fewer animals. But income was still down £15,000 on budget. Margin over concentrates rose to £1207 a cow against a budget of £1191."

Sheep income was £35,000 under budget and Mr Kilby holds little hope that there will be any real improvement for 18 months or so. He has, therefore, decided to reduce the sheep flock.

The replacements which were planned for this coming lambing have not been bought after all. The flock will go from just over 1300 head to under 1000 head for spring 1999. The following year it will drop to 600 head or thereabouts, unless there is an unexpected upturn.

Lambs are now being sold into the store trade, with the first 300 averaging £26.50 after commission and transport, and last weeks 600 head netting £27 a head at Ashford on Friday. These prices are more than £10 a head down on last year.

The dairy herd is also likely to be cut, but not for the same reasons. The neospora abortion problem has subsided, although there is still the odd incidence. Mr Kilby fears that buying in replacements either for routine culls or for the abortion cases may introduce animals which have no immunity to the disease.

This policy is particularly frustrating when 8000-litre animals are available for £500 a head. But it will be enforced unless a meeting with MAFF vets on Nov 10 produces hard facts identifying why the farm has been so badly affected.

The meeting is being held to try to identify any common threads between farms which have experienced the disease.

By the third week in October half the wheat area was still undrilled. "We could do it in four or five days if we got a good run because we are pulling on labour and machinery from other farms. So we will be at it as soon as we get a dry spell.

"But the chances of getting a decent seed-bed and good establishment are slim, so the likelihood is that we will have to put in linseed to get a more favourable gross margin than on a 2.5t wheat crop.

"We wont get anything rolled and I have never seen slugs like we have got this year. We have 20 slugs a square foot across all the wheat fields. We are keeping on top of it but we have spent £10/acre on slug pellets, and even the supposedly waterproof ones are not lasting because of the heavy rain." Despite this the wheat that has been drilled looks well.

With well over 50mm (2in) of rain falling in 30 hours last weekend, more slugs were dying from drowning than from the effects of the slug pellets.

If the weather continues to go against Mr Kilbys drilling plans, and he does sow more linseed, it will add to the 81ha (200 acres) of linseed already in the cropping plan, this on a farm where the spring workload is already high.

As for the future, Mr Kilby has budgeted an average wheat price of £75/t ex farm for next harvest and £77/t for November 1999. Milk has gone in at 20p/litre, the same price achieved in the year just ended.

If those assumptions are correct, the farm gross margin should rise by £50,000 to £320,000, with better grain prices and lower seed, fertiliser and spray prices being the main contributors, helped by slightly lower interest rates. &#42

FARM FACTS

&#8226 A 649ha (1604 acre) arable, dairy and sheep holding owned by John Whelan and farmed by Sentry Farming.

&#8226 Chalky soil with some clay over chalk in Kent.

&#8226 356ha (880 acres) mixed combinable crops, including non-rotational set-aside.

&#8226 Dairy herd currently stands at 195 cows averaging just over 6500 litres.

&#8226 1300 ewes lambing mid-March, mainly Mules, some Scotch half-breds.

&#8226 Six full-time staff.

Achieving a decent seed-bed and good establishment is becoming increasingly difficult at Whelan Farms as wet weather continues. Here, foreman, Andy Crow, drills Savannah winter wheat on heavy land at 180kg/ha using the new Fastrac and Sulky combination drill.


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