July’s hot topics

28 July 2014

By the time you read this, combines across Scotland will be in full swing with winter barley, and moving in to OSR. Early reports are looking good for both quality and quantity, although there has been some variation, particularly on specific weight. Looking at crops throughout Scotland this season, especially wheat, there has been a significant variation in disease levels, so I suspect that variation will continue through harvest.

One of the key lessons learned from this growing season must be the importance of timeliness – most of the “dirty” crops I have seen this year were where T0 sprays had been omitted or spray timings had been compromised. It will be interesting to see the trial plot results from this harvest with treated versus untreated plots.

The two common questions being asked by growers at the moment are

  • What are the details surrounding the requirements for EFA and greening?
  • What break crops should I be growing?

The first one is simple to answer – we don’t know what the detail is at this moment and are unlikely to know until later in the year. But what I would say is that when coming up with your cropping plans for next season, make sure that your autumn drilling campaign is flexible enough to allow you to react to any requirement for EFA and greening in the Spring.

The second one has initiated a lot of discussion at recent Monitor Farm meetings and has come to prominence due to a number of factors: Three-crop rule; falling gross margins of OSR in particular; and soil management issues. A number of growers are questioning the financial viability of OSR and are looking for alternative break crops. There are no “one size fits all” answers and each grower must decide which the best option for their farm is. However there are some key points which should be considered along with relative gross margins before making a final decision.

  • Local market: whilst OSR has a global price, some break crops may earn local premiums, or reduced handling costs, such as milling oats or beans for livestock feed.
  • Contribution to the overall rotation: harvest date of some potential break crops may mean delayed drilling dates for subsequent crops beyond the optimum date.
  • Disease control: what are the main issues relating to disease carry-over on my farm and which break crops are effective in minimising carry-over.
  • Soil structure: if you know you have some compaction issues, then it would be worthwhile considering a break crop with a long tap root.
  • Integration in to your system: if looking at alternative break crops, make sure your existing equipment can handle them; otherwise potential benefits may be negated with higher contracting charges.
  • Pay attention to what other growers are doing: if everyone jumps into beans, for example, then the market will be flooded. Alternatively make sure you have a contract before sowing.
  • Impact on overall Gross Margin: when looking at crop gross margins, it is always important to look at the effect of any cropping change to the total gross margin. A small individual difference can have a significant impact on the whole margin if multiplied by enough hectares.

July has been a busy month with the Monitor Farms, and all four have had meetings, including an Open Day in Aberdeenshire. With two farms coming to the end of their three-year projects, and two just getting in to the beginning of theirs, it is interesting how they have approached their recent meetings.

Black Isle 24 July

Growers grill Monitor Farmer Brian on his barley in Black Isle.

While all four are at the start of a new cropping year, Aberdeen and Borders have taken a strategic approach, focussing on the strengths and opportunities of each business and the direction each business should be heading over the next three to five years. The groups have also decided how they want the legacy of the projects to look – both groups want the Arable Business Groups to continue, and both groups want to re-visit the Monitor Farms as well as other farms from the Management Group.

Fife and the Black Isle have taken a much more practical, day to day approach, and concentrated on creating a cropping plan for each Monitor Farm, taking in to account both crop gross margins and rotational needs. I was amazed at the number of different varieties that are being grown on farms in the same area – perhaps more on that at a later date!

One of the key objectives of the Monitor Farm programme is to “increase the capacity of the individual farmer to make better informed business decisions” – the different approaches taken by the two pairs of farms, one at the end of the project and one at the beginning, is a clear indication that the programme is working and benefitting the majority of those involved – even though they might not yet realise it!

Gavin Dick - Scotland

Gavin Dick - Scotland

AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds Manager (Scotland). Previously a business specialist with SAC, working to broaden farmers’ business management skills.