Whole systems and the cost benefit of new arable technology

27 April 2015

We all know how much technology has moved on over the last 50 years, but it very much hit home to me recently. I spent a day on a farm last week where they had just purchased the latest light green machine – over 500hp of the latest muscle, complete with all-singing and dancing GPS and electronics – its colour reflecting the way I felt towards the driver!

What was I doing at the weekend? I was tidying up around the place, collecting the winter’s fallen branches and general rubbish. What was I using? My lovingly restored (not by me!) 1962 David Brown 880. My DB 880 has less than 10% of the horsepower of the big one and its physical dimensions are probably about the same as the weight-box on the front! But these two machines also have something in common – their primary function is/was crop establishment.

I’m left wondering about the cost benefit of this new technology. There is no doubt that the benefits are there, but are growers capitalising on the full benefit of the systems that technology offers us? It’s a complete system in its own right, not just lots of electronics and comfort.

There are certainly true exponents who are operating, for example, 100% CTF (Controlled Traffic Farming systems), and are harvesting all the benefits the system has to offer. However I suspect (fear) that there are a large number of growers who make considerable investment in technology without fully understanding the system and crucially, the management requirements of that system, to ensure their investment is fully utilised. In fact is it justified by the system at all?

With cereal prices at or below cost of production, can we afford not to achieve every £ of return from these investments? So when contemplating a new piece of kit, don’t just look at the individual item – look at your whole system and make sure it will allow you to fully utilise what you’re about to purchase.

Perhaps we (AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds) need to invest more time and money in defining and researching whole systems, rather than the individual elements.

So what’s happening with crops in Scotland?

Well spring has finally sprung since my last blog and for the most part we’ve had an excellent spell – allowing  spring crops to be drilled in to perfect seedbeds; spray and fertiliser programmes to be kept up to date; potatoes to be planted (although perhaps with not too much enthusiasm!).

Winter OSR is looking well, from buds extending to in flower, and light leaf spot sprays have been applied. LLS levels are low and the focus will now move to sclerotinia. Whilst pollen beetles are relatively easy to find, they remain below threshold levels.

Winter barley is mostly looking lush now with all the fertiliser applied. Crops are between GS30 and 32, with rhynchosporium the main disease present, although there is some mildew evident in thicker crops.

Winter wheat is also looking well, although there are some bare patches on headlands where later sowing took place. Most crops are around GS30 with low levels of septoria and mildew, although yellow rust has been found in Horatio.

Spring crops have brairded quickly and evenly, establishing whilst retaining their full potential. A lot of growers are opting for pre-emergence annual meadow-grass control and it will be interesting to see how it performs with the current dry soil conditions.

Gavin Dick - Scotland

Gavin Dick - Scotland

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