Farmers are used to dealing with uncertainty related to the weather, disease and politics. The Brexit challenge is no greater than any other we have faced, says John Henning, County Armagh beef farmer, Nuffield Scholar and former banker.
With just six months until the UK leaves the EU on March 29, 2019, the reality of Brexit is just around the corner.
But should farm planning in the face of Brexit uncertainty be any different to the many challenges which have faced farmers over recent years?
During my banking career, farm plans, benchmarking and budgets became increasingly important to both farmers and bankers as businesses became more complex and unexpected challenges threw the best laid plans into disarray.
The latest John Nix Pocketbook has now been published, just over 50 years since the first farm planning guide appeared in 1966.
Since then, UK agriculture has faced a host of unexpected challenges, including accession to the European Economic Community in 1973, a BSE outbreak in 1986 and FMD in 2001.
Despite being a comprehensive source of business information and planning guidance for British agriculture, the John Nix Pocketbook could not have provided farmers with all of the answers and information needed to deal with the impact of these, and many other, exceptional events.
In spite of uncertainty around Brexit and its likely effect on agriculture, I remain confident that farmers and growers on these islands have the ability and resilience to meet the challenges ahead and indeed turn many of these challenges into opportunities, with the aid of farming management skills and benchmarking guides.
On our farm, livestock have performed well over the summer, despite unprecedented drought conditions in July and August which necessitated feeding hay to cows and calves from July 1.
Slow regrowth after first cut silage also resulted in a light second cut, so we now face the winter with 30 per cent of fodder already used, which will require careful budgeting to avoid the need to buy additional silage.
On the bright side, spring barley sown three weeks later was harvested three weeks earlier than in 2017, with grain yielding >3 tonnes per acre and straw yield up 240 per cent.
Heat detection during the breeding season was challenging, so several young bulls were pressed into service with a batch of 14-15 month old yearling heifers achieving 83 per cent conception to first service. Hopefully a similar result can be achieved when the cows are PD’d next month.
The calves resulting from these breeding decisions will be post-Brexit calves – with gestation length, birth weights, easy calving and milking ability still the key factors in giving calves a good start in life and the potential to be profitable.
These attributes remain important selling points for the Aberdeen Angus breed and I remain confident that top quality British livestock and genetics will remain in demand, despite any additional exporting requirements which may be imposed from April 2019.
Brexit will undoubtedly have a greater impact here in Northern Ireland (NI) given the land border with the Republic of Ireland/EU, however commentators are at last beginning to see this does not have to be the insurmountable problem many previously claimed.
The reality is while the border is largely invisible, it does still exist without presenting major day-to-day difficulties for farmers and the agri-food industry.
Many farmers in NI did vote leave in the referendum due to concerns about the future of CAP, increasing bureaucracy and memories of milk lakes, beef surpluses and grain mountains.
Despite much media comment to the contrary, I have yet to meet a farmer who feels differently now.
Most are confident in the ability of UK Agriculture PLC to deliver for both farmers and the environment, without the constraints of an EU system which was not always fit for purpose.
The undoubted challenges and uncertainty ahead due to Brexit are not really much different to the many unexpected events which have impacted on farming throughout the life of Professor John Nix’s highly regarded Pocketbook.
Each time, the industry had to adapt and change in response to new challenges and opportunities in agriculture.
Then and now, we can paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill who said “...this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
John can be found tweeting at @johnhenningmoo