Uncertainty about the future is something every business in the UK is having to live with as the country approaches Brexit. For farming, as the industry looks towards a whole new support regime post-Common Agricultural Policy, the uncertainty is particularly pronounced.
Dr Debbie McConnell is a dairy grassland scientist at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute in Northern Ireland. As someone who spends all her time looking at grasslands and ways to improve productivity and profitability, she is well placed to take an overview of the industry and the challenges it faces.
Dr McConnell describes a mixed picture for grassland farming with major opportunities to increase the productivity and profitability of livestock enterprises, and the greater use of technology providing more data and better management.
However, she also believes there are real challenges in delivering these benefits.
“There is a very wide range of efficiency in the industry,” she says, “with the genetics available in current seed varieties, there is the potential to produce on-farm yields in excess of 15 tonnes dry matter per hectare, as opposed to the current 7.5t DM/ha average. Given an extra tonne of dry matter per hectare represents an increase of £334/ha in net margin, you can see this is a real loss to the sector.
“The tools and the information to deliver these improvements are there, but we seem to lack the focus to do so.”
Dr McConnell would like to see grassland management higher up the agenda in agricultural education, plus an increased focus on-farm to include more detailed planning and measurement, something she believes few grassland farmers are doing.
She says: “We need to think of grass as a crop and apply the same level of detail and attention we would when growing an arable crop.”
One area where she believes grassland management may benefit from the work done in arable farming, is the use of technology for data capture.
“I think these are really exciting times to be involved with grassland. The use of technology such as drones and satellites should enable us to make much smarter decisions. We can start to look at data on a sub-field basis and make decisions such as variable seed rates and fertiliser applications. I think we will benefit from the fact many of the bugs in this technology have been ironed out by the arable industry,” she says.
Dr George Fisher, an independent consultant to the grassland sector with many years’ experience including time at AHDB and Reaseheath, believes a lack of planning is holding the sector back – both in general terms, but also specifically when it comes to the milk price.
“It is possible to plan for changes in the milk price, as there is a three-year cycle of the UK Actual Milk Price Equivalent as recently demonstrated by AHDB Dairy,” he says.
“Rather than worrying about what we cannot predict, producers can plan for these changes. One way of responding is by ensuring at least 4,000 litres per cow per year is produced from home-grown grass and forage. Doing that will put a profitable base into any system.”
For Dr Fisher, the most successful grassland farmers are those who have a plan and know what they want to achieve, whether it is turnover or margin. Having set their objectives, farmers can then look at the detail of managing their grassland and their herd. Unfortunately, he believes many farmers do not have a plan and have not laid out their objectives before making decisions.
A clearer understanding of ‘return on investment’ would also help, says Dr Fisher, and this is also where information on the ‘milk price cycle’ can help – ensuring investments will continue to pay, no matter what happens to the milk price. The final point he makes is ensuring farmers are in control at every stage of implementing the plan. “It’s up to the farmer to make sure the details are right throughout the process, delegating to others will simply not be as effective.”