Blandford farmer George Hosford abandons the stats and checks his crystal ball to see if his profit calculations will be accurate this year
Below left is a screenshot from a clever app which helps us to analyse the outcome of various tramline trials we carried out on the 2022 crops. The yellow/green pattern represents the yield map generated by the combine while harvesting – green is better yield than yellow, with orange and red being progressively worse than yellow. The app – called Climate Fieldview Cab – is from Bayer, one of the big agrichem companies. Love them or hate them, they have the resources to develop clever stuff like this; it’s not always just more chemicals.
The app allows you to select any area of the field you like, or individual passes of the combine, and then tells you the area and yield on that part of the field. So where we have applied a treatment to a particular part of a field – alternate tramlines in this case – we can then measure the effect of the treatment on yield. The blue pins represent where the tramlines are; I simply walked across the field and added each one in the right place. This helps you to choose the right passes to include in the analysis, and to ignore the ones which run across two treatments.
In this field we were testing a product which is supposed to reduce the amount of nitrogen lost to the atmosphere by converting nitrogen oxide into plant feed. You can see we found no significant difference in yield between tramline treatments.
Elsewhere on the farm we wanted to test our nitrogen fertiliser policy on wheat, so we chose a single tramline in each of four different fields and applied an extra 40kg of nitrogen, then measured the difference using the app. We found that the extra 40kg produced extra yield between five and eight per cent. If you haven’t already dozed off, you may now be asking “so what, it all depends on the value of grain and the cost of the fertiliser” and you would be quite right. It also depends on when you sell the grain and when you buy the fertiliser, and whether you have to borrow the money to do so … A fair bit of number crunching and crystal ball gazing then needs to happen in order to decide the right approach for next season.
We have already committed to buy next year’s fertiliser, at eye-watering prices. To leave it longer would have been reckless as we might not have been able to secure supply at all. But we are now very dependent on the grain price holding up to make the figures work and for crop growing to remain profitable. The trouble is that over the last six weeks the price of wheat has fallen £50 per ton. That’s making a huge difference to predicted margins, and right now we are not looking so clever (the same as very many other farmers). Anyway, we have the fertiliser in stock and we don’t have to use it all if calculations suggest it won’t pay. We could hold some over for the following year. In any case, we have already had to pay for it a year before we will see any return from selling the grain it generates.
Welcome to the roulette wheel of farming.
The old joke goes “How do you make a million from farming? Start with two million.”
In some sectors, like pigs, poultry and horticulture, that is absolutely the case right now, with energy costs, labour shortage and the intransigence of retailers leading to producers saying “stuff this for a lark, I am not risking another production cycle when the prospects guarantee huge losses”.
They aren’t placing orders for new egg-laying chicks, productive sows are being slaughtered and not replaced, and the horticulture and protected (under glass) sector is reducing output after two years of 30 per cent of unharvested crops, due to lack of labour. The fear is that these producers won’t come back, making the UK ever more dependent on imported food, the opposite of what every food shopper says they want.
The picture on the left illustrates part of the problem. Why does anyone need to import near-identical overseas products when we produce them here?
Our production costs are higher even than Europe because of tighter welfare and other regulations and we are now having to pay more for labour thanks to having become an unfriendly destination to foreign workers. So can anyone explain why we need to import Dutch, German or Danish pork loins? They are all the same price on the shelf. There only seems to be one likely outcome – answers on a postcard please.
And then there are sheep
The above picture shows why we still keep a few sheep. In farming terms they are unproductive, they can denude a landscape with their persistent nibbling, they attract every ailment you can imagine, they get hopelessly stuck on their backs in hot weather, they get stuck in brambles in any weather.
Their wool, once the mainstay of our nation’s productive output, and despite its undeniable magical properties, is now a valueless annoyance, and their meat … well, if you can find any among the bones and fat then you are cleverer than I.
However, they do make excellent pets. You can leave them outdoors all year round, they can survive on very little food and don’t drink much water, and you can turn up in the field with a group of tiny schoolchildren and the sheep will gallop towards you in search of titbits.
Once the toast has been distributed most of the sheep wander off, but the best ones remain to entertain the children in the gentlest fashion. The children are mostly fearless, and the sheep reward their bravery with great patience.
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