It is full steam ahead on-farm after the cold, wet spring – so how are our four profiled farmers managing to keep a lid on costs and maximise efficiencies?
In the latest in our series ’The cost of production challenge’ we take a look at what each of our farmers are doing to keep costs low and efficiency high after the cold, wet spring.
NEAL SANDERS, HEAD OF MARKETING
The most efficient 20% of cereal farmers produce 35% of UK wheat at around the figure quoted by Tom Bradshaw this month. Typically, there is no silver bullet which pushes a farmer into the top quartile for efficiency, more usually just general incremental improvements in lots of areas.
One of these, but by no means the only one, is using crop inputs effectively – maximising yield and quality is an important component of minimising costs/tonne.
Crop protection is the third largest input for growing wheat (after labour/ machinery and rent/finance) – at about £22/t, it represents 17% of total inputs for an average cereal farm. But not all inputs are the same – and while differences between some types of products may be small, those marginal gains can be hugely important, whether it is the extra 0.3t/ha on average you can get from a fungicide such as Ascra (bixafen + prothioconazole + fluopyram) over its competitors, to the extra 10% in black-grass control from Monolith (mesosulfuron + propoxycarbazone). It is this type of small improvement which can drive higher yields and ultimately profitability
Staff at R.S. Cockerill Farms have been flat out planting potatoes, hiring in extra manpower in the form of contractors.
“We’ve got two planters and we’ve brought a third in – we’re averaging 2.5 a day as we’re moving around with 600 acres to plant,” says Oliver Savage.
With the late spring, it’s more important to shell out on a contractor than risk not getting the potatoes in the ground.
This year the farm is carrying out five hectares of trial work for Pepsico, which includes new varieties, nematicides and herbicides.
“We’ve got about 30 hand-planted plots of new material – customers are forever looking at new varieties and as growers we’re looking for any advantages from new products,” he adds. “I’m a big believer that by running trials you get a good feel for what will work for you – and Pepsico is a key company to hold trials for. We will also hold two open days and share all the results with other Cockerill suppliers.”
Farm manager at J.P. Clay, Fawley Court, Fawley, Herefordshire
HAVING a commercial grain store is a useful diversification, and J.P. Clay has applied for a Countryside Productivity grant to expand from 7,500-tonne capacity to 14,000t.
“There are so many people crying out for storage and grain processing, so we should be able to help more growers out,” says Mr Wood. If successful in securing the 40% grant, the expansion should pay for itself over seven years – and it will provide a new full-time job in the area.
“In an age where we’re growing commodities, this gives us some extra income which isn’t linked to commodity prices.”
The firm is also cutting out the middleman by selling grain directly to local chicken feed mills.
“Our local market is for feed grains – the milling wheat haulage is too far. We are tying up with local buyers and growing what they want – it is all about developing local relationships.”
The late, wet spring means Jimmy Gooderham is going to take a robust approach to fungicides this year – while it will increase input costs the benefits should be worthwhile.
“I’d be amazed if we don’t see a good response to higher rates. We always do a T1 but we’re going with slightly higher rates to try and knock back disease that’s already manifesting itself.”
Although he prefers to keep crops clean from the start with a preventative approach, the weather has thwarted that this year.
“Septoria is there so we want to stop it spreading up the plant.” Mr Gooderham anticipates the extra fungicides will cost £25-£30/hectare more than a normal year.
“But it could be catastrophic without them – the higher rates could be worth £50-£60/ha to me.”
He is taking a similar approach to weed control, upping the herbicide rates to tackle weeds which have already taken off. Like many farms in the area, black-grass is a challenge, but he treats the whole acreage – contracted and owned – as one farm, enabling him to rotate crops and let some land out for outdoor pigs and potatoes.
“It’s about fine-tuning really – I’m optimistic we should be okay.”
Owner at Fletchers Farm, Fordham, Colchester, Essex
Tom Bradshaw was recently elected the NFU’s national crops board chairman, so has been busy considering how to secure the use of crop protection products in future.
“It’s a great time to be involved. We need to keep as many tools in the toolbox as possible, as it’s an issue that’s going to have a massive impact on farm productivity.”
As well as working to secure a policy framework which will deliver a profitable farming future for the whole sector, there are some more personal benefits, he says.
“By being in such close touch with policy development and emerging areas of concern, you do hear about things right at the outset, which is useful from a business planning perspective.”
Having got the crops in the ground, Mr Bradshaw is now watching the grain markets to find the best time to sell. “We have contracts in place but they aren’t priced up yet,” he says.
“We do work out our break-even point, based onaverage production, but it’s very dependent on yields and we don’t know what they will be like this year. With wheat, our cost of production is about £130/t so there is some margin at current prices, but I think the market is well underpinned due to weather concerns in Argentina and Australia. I will take a bit more risk than I normally do and just keep watching.”