Monday, December 14, 2015

Flood control needs greater farmer cooperation

Farmers across Britain pull together to give essential help

Volunteers with diggers and tractors open the beck in Glenridding, Pic:
Synopsis: This article suggests that farmers consider another way of helping each other. Flood prevention should involve water management in the uplands, not just where rivers overflow in the towns downstream. Management of the land which catches the rain is not difficult. Increase the water retention, or porosity of this upland grassland, and there's less water in the streams leading to swollen rivers. Running an aerator over the sward is a simple low cost solution which has the added benefit of improving grass production the following season. Water percolates into the soil instead of flowing across the surface.  

Farmers are hugely generous to each other in a crisis such as floods. Wagons of forage and bedding are donated free of charge by those unaffected in the eastern counties. Local farmers use tractors to help local folk get out of trouble, and their farm diggers to clear and dredge streams. Farmers have played a huge role in the Cumbrian floods. As always, they've pulled together using their kit to clear streams of trees and other debris so the water can flow, used their diggers to clear blocked roads and dredge silt from streams and becks.

From the other side of the country there are other farmers who once again are providing wagon loads of straw and forage generously donated by people who themselves have their own problems. It's something that's not been pointed out by the media or the NFU. This help is coming from people who have been hard hit by the commodity collapse this year. All which makes their generosity even more impressive. Donating a load of silage when your own dairy herd is losing money is real generosity.

The RABI has surgeries at local marts - Tues Dec 15 Kirkby Stephen (4pm onwards); Wed Dec 16 Penrith (10.00-12.00) and Cockermouth 1.30-4.30; Mon Dec 21 Carlisle (10.00-12.00).

There can be nothing worse than a flooded livestock farm. Damaged and destroyed forage and bedding, livestock at risk through wet and cold, slurry and other muck getting everywhere - nothing could be more depressing. The farms most affected are those in the valley, often stocked with the housed livestock. The flood water in their yard has come off the hills of their upland neighbours, many with grazing sheep and outwintered cattle.

How upland farmers might help their valley neighbours

Readers will know that I am an enthusiast of grass aerating. Having made the spiking machine shown below in 1988, I found it made a big difference to grass yields. Cutting through the compacted top two inches so air and life could be let in, it was also discovered that, unsurprisingly, the slits allowed rainwater to soak in. This was useful when rain quickly followed slurry spreading and there was a real danger of run-off polluting a stream. In the 24 years of this magazine there have been numerous flood 'events' and each time I bring out the proposition that aerating upland grassland would reduce run-off.
Mike Donovan's aerator made from a scrap Vicon Olympus mower as featured in Practical Farm Ideas
Each time the message has been sent to Defra and other official bodies, but with no reaction. No doubt their staff ask "How could a simpleton without a doctorate or professorship know anything interesting, and how can an idea so simple be expected to work?". And they doubtless than go on to say that any such idea needs scientifically testing and proving.

The Facebook post on the  topic has reached 7,744 farmers and attracted comments. While half or more thought the method looked good, others said aerating would never absorb the volume of rain which fell and that anyway autumn was the wrong time to be aerating grassland. I'm not too certain that either of these objections really stand up and I've provided them with my reasoning. If the aerating job absorbed 10% of the downpour it might well be sufficient to reduce the flow sufficient to protect the farms close to the river.

Waiting for Godot - or Defra

Defra, and other government departments, often mirror Samuel Beckett's absurd play where two men wait forever for their friend Godot. On this occasion I don't think we need wait forever. Upland farmers might be galvanised to run over their land with an aerator each autumn, preparing the surface for a possible downpour, at the same time helping grass yield. The job is not particularly time sensitive and modern aerators are a whole lot wider than the 8ft I built, which could have had extending wings if I had a larger farm. Aerating could become a job which upland holdings would take a pride in doing, as important as hedge trimming.
Please send comments etc to

The current issue of PFI magazine


Robot milkers are catching attention, but what's the story outside the brochure? The new routine, training cows and cowmen - the experience of a recent converter.

Slug-pelleting 32 metres in one pass with the ATV sounds impossible - until you see this trailed spreader designed and built in the farm workshop.

Zero-till gets interesting with current prices. A full scale tour around one of the technique's top operators who reveals some major money saving tips on equipment, methods, and results. Read it!

Tractor service intervals are getting longer. Will they save oil and cost more in wear?

Driverless, cabless tractors are in the USA and doubtless will soon be here. Driven by diesel-electric power unit/s as described below.

Tractor replacement is increasingly expensive, and replacing/repairing tired engines and worn gearboxes not much cheaper. Here's an alternative - a retro-fit diesel-electric unit with 200hp Isusu driving a 150kW AC alternator and wheel motors. Replaces engine, gearbox and final drive in your tractor frame. Same system as in railway carriages - very long service hours, few working parts, and CVT type performance.

Mini dumper makes cubicle brush - and then converts back in the summer for site work.

And also....  kinetic log splitter. Human powered through car spring.

Financial Focus:  How to Limit Tax on Developing Land to just 10% Through Planning and Knowledge. Read now, plan with care, reap benefit later.

Renew now while copies last. All who respond before Dec 17 get a FREE back issue  Don't subscribe yet? Choose your subscription plan from here. £16.50/year p+p inc.

Best wishes

Mike Donovan

PS If you have an idea for editorial, or need a speaker for your farm discussion group, please get in touch. If you want pictures of something, or anything else, such as pics of something we have had in the magazine. And do let your fellow farmers know about Practical Farm Ideas - which many farmers tell me is the best magazine they get.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Why 2015/16 is The Year to Move to Zero-Till from Min-Till

"I don't know what to do this autumn," a farmer said to me yesterday. "Growing barley at today's price of around £85 is walking into a loss. It's a real gamble that prices might improve. A crop of grass may well achieve nothing better. There's no real answer."

It's a dilemma facing a great many farmers. With the combines out and the grass growing, farming looks in fine fettle, but the underlying problems are acute. My caller posed a basic question for which there is so easy answer.

He told me he used conventional cultivations with a plough and a combination drill. His machinery was all paid for, he did a lot of the work himself and the land he farmed was not heavily mortgaged. He couldn't do it cheaper. Or could he?

Drilling into a cover crop of oats with John Deere 750A disc 
drill. The drill is said to plant more seed than any other across the globe.

"How much do you know about zero-till?" I asked.

"People have tried min-till around here, and it's been a right mess, weeds have been a real problem. Ploughing gets those weeds buried and out of the way, and gets a proper tilth for the seeds to germinate and get going."

"But min-till and zero or no-till are very different," I explain. "Min-till disturbs soil, brings up weed seeds, uses quantities of diesel and wears parts. It's faster, and therefore cheaper than ploughing, but the soil surface is disturbed and the structure changed. Zero-till aims to plant seeds with the minimum of soil disturbance. Often you can't see where the drill has been. You drill using a guidance system or auto-steer, and the seeds are planted and then left to grow."

Zero-tilled Clare w-wheat after 4 years with no cultivation

It was clear that he didn't have much knowledge of zero-till, and that's not surprising. There's not a lot of info about. Arable events and publications are still engaged in high cost min-till machinery, with rippers and multi-section cultivators behind big tractors. The whole business of planting seed directly into land which has not been turned, broken, disced, ripped seems bizarre. How on earth do the seeds germinate and grow in soil where you can see the combine's wheelmarks?

The practice works.... and I almost typed in 'theory' there. It works for large scale and small scale farmers. People with heavy land and light land, organic growers and conventional. It is used on 15% of the cropped area in the USA, from high rainfall areas in the north to the dry lands of Texas and in many many others countries as well.

After just two years the no-tilled soil is more friable, has more worms and biological activity

"This could be the ideal season to make the change."

Why is 2015/16 the season to make a start? With low grain prices the financial risk is much reduced. You know you're going for a loss if you farm it conventionally. If using zero-till causes your yield to go down by as much as 20% (and it may well be less, or nothing at all) and your costs are reduced by 35% (and it may well be more), you're quids in. You may be happily surprised at the yields you get.

The Soil+Cover Cropping International articles featured over the past two years and more of Practical Farm Ideas are vitally important. They feature dozens of farm walks in considerable detail, over UK farms with very varying growing conditions. They tell you the experiences and record the advice from these farmers who would never go back to any form of cultivation. They enjoy seeing the improvement in the quality of the soil on their farms, as well as the freedom of less work, expense and greater rewards.

Take out a new subscription today (£16.50 UK) and get the current issue together with the next autumn, winter and spring issues. Or get the past four issues* and a year's subscription with our Special Offer B for £27.87. 

The photos below are of zero-till crops from UK farms visited and featured in the current issue of Practical Farm Ideas  Vol 24 - 2
Skyfall Gp1 milling wheat in year 5 of z-t. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Dairy farmers deserve a minimum milk price

The noted think-tank, The Adam Smith, makes this comment about milk prices: 
"Of course, the real background to this is that, as has been happening for the past couple of centuries as farming techniques improve, milk has been getting cheaper and cheaper to produce. And as has been happening over that time the higher cost producers have been pushed out of the market by the lower cost ones. This is, after all, the universe’s way of telling you to go do something else, when the price of what you produce is lower than the cost of producing it. That’s what is devastating farming, we’re in general becoming more efficient at it.
And the supermarkets are, through their subsidy, restricting this process which is the very opposite of devastation, isn’t it?"
The article also says this:
"Retailers insist they are funding the cost of the price reduction from their own profits, rather than paying farmers less. Many supermarkets have guaranteed the price farms receive will stay above the cost of production."

The Adam Smith writers say they are confused, and they are not alone. 

Here's a major problem to start with - supermarkets talk in pints; farmers talk and get paid per litre. There are more than two pints to the litre! The farmer is getting paid 20p/litre today and the supermarket sells at 22p/pint. The supermarket is therefore selling at more than double the price paid to the farmer. They call their 20p markup a ‘loss leader’, yet this is the total earned by the farmer who has to finance land, buildings, labour, machinery, fuel and power, vets and medicines, plus finance the cow within the 20p earned. 
The dairy processor has the job of collecting the bulk milk from the farm tank, pasteurise, bottle, and deliver to the supermarket – which puts the bottles on the shelves. The store orders when stocks are low and expects a near instant delivery, so little goes to waste. The dairy has to balance supplies with markets, diverting milk to processing into butter, cheese and powder. It’s clear the actual costs carried by the farmer outweigh those of the other players.
Milk is not a price sensitive product. People don’t double their purchase if the price is reduced, nor do they reduce it if the price increases. Supermarkets use it as a loss leader 
1. because shoppers remember the price 
2. because the structure of the market that consists of a handful of competing processors, allows them to do it. The MMB arrangement was fairer to farmers as they had a voice in pricing. It was brought in in 1933 after much the same issue – dairies paying below production costs – and more sheninigins besides.
1. industry agreement or even legislation which provides a minimum farm gate price that’s works like the minimum wage. 
2. Supermarkets being shamed into using milk as a loss leader. 
3. Dairies reducing supplies to supermarkets so stores are empty.
The EU Commission might well see this as a prosecutable offence - as infringing their rules of commercial competition. The industry needs to engage some smart lawyers who write the clauses so this won't happen. 

How I wish Meurig Raymond (NFU President) could provide a similar explanation.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Reducing costs in beef sector

Practical solutions to cost problems in beef sector

On today's BBC Farming Today programme (Monday, June 30, 2014), presenter Charlotte Smith talks to Professor Liam Sinclair from Harper Adams who makes some interesting points:

1. There's a wide gap in efficiency between the top third and the bottom third of beef and sheep producers

2. Capital costs are very variable between farms

3. Some beef and sheep farmers weigh stock infrequently. "If you can't measure it you can't manage it"

Some effective solutions built in the farm workshop 

Specialist equipment can add significantly to the costs of production for low margin enterprises such as beef and sheep. Some farmers get the penny and the bun by making long-lasting, durable equipment in their own workshops.  

A. Mobile handling with incorporated weigh crush. 

Driving cattle from grazing land to the handling facilities in the yard is takes time and effort. Yet a

Monday, June 23, 2014

Farming opportunities: 10 developments you must consider

Today's opportunities in farming  

Bankers, politicians and other commentators with an income not directly gained from the land have joined a chorus singing of the wondrous opportunities in farming. Farmers on the other hand, with mud on their boots, and cattle and corn to pay the bills,

Monday, June 02, 2014

Keeping walkers safe from grazing cattle

Keeping walkers safe from grazing cattle

On Wednesday May 14 2014 Peter Jakeman, 62, from Callington, Cornwall, was walking on a footpath in Derbyshire when he was trampled to death by cattle. This is not the first accident of this kind - in fact the UK average is one death from stampeding cattle and a hundred or so injuries per year, and very many more near-misses.  Enough to make any farmer with footpaths on their grazing land to take notice. 

More ideas for greater safety

The constant accident rate is accompanied by an unchanging set of instructions to walkers - keep dogs on a lead but, when the cattle charge, let them loose. Give cattle in the field a wide berth. Don't run away, don't be obtrusive. The instructions are not wholly effective. So here are some further ideas which could help reduce the incidence of cattle chasing, and occasionally injuring walkers.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Milk after quotas

Peter Lauritzen is chief executive of Arla Foods, the UK arm of the Danish-Swedish co-operative dating back to 1880. Arla now has 3,800 UK farmers as members, out of a total 13,500, and their UK business buys more than 25% of the milk produced in the UK. 

An article in the Times (Jan 18, 2014), says that Mr Lauritzen anticipates a torrent of milk being produced after the quota regime ends next year, and a consequent 'price war' driving farm gate prices, and farmers profits lower. Practical Farm Ideas has published similar forecasts for more than two years,

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Farm Composting Made Easy

Farm Composting Made Easy

Composting is not a regular farm activity. Conventional farmers get nutrients from chemicals and through crop rotations, as well as spreading dung from their livestock enterprises, should they have them. Organic farmers, who are forbidden the use of chemical fertilisers, have to rely entirely on crop rotations and mixed farming systems which produce quantities of dung and farm yard manure. Composting, the accelerated rotting of organic material, is mostly associated with smallholders and allotment keepers.

Full scale farmers are finding compost a good source of soil nutrient, and a wonderful soil conditioner. Composting dung and farm yard manure produces something far more beneficial than fresh or rotted dung. Material such as straw, green waste from council collection, waste from vegetable and fruit growing and processing, this and more can be converted into compost. Apart from its value to farmers, there's an increasing commercial market, created by the future ban imposed on the digging and use of peat. In the next two years, the horticultural industry will be searching for a substitute to go in the pots of bedding and other plants.

Composting is set to become far more main stream than at present.

  • Farmers and advisors are recognising that the condition of soils is deteriorating, both on arable and grassland. Soil is losing organic matter. The contribution of farm yard manure, or cattle slurry, is a fraction of what happens when the manure is turned into compost. The elements of phosphate and potash are both made more accessible to plants, and the compost makes a big improvement in soil structure, leading to increased worms and other biological activity.
  • The rising cost of chemical fertilisers is making compost and other natural sources of plant nutrients increasing valuable, and therefore popular. 
The current issue of Practical Farm Ideas magazine features a home built compost turner - one which would suit a farm with up 600 acres. The project requires:
  • general workshop skills, 
  • parts which can be sourced locally for scrap metal prices - the main component is a heavy duty lorry axle.
  • a week or less of work  
So instead of starting the farm composting with a substantial investment in a machine to turn and aerate the material - it's a tedious and poorly done job using a loader and bucket  - a turner can be made with a few components and a few days in the workshop. The machine we feature has turned 25,000 cu metres over the last few years, and has the ability to turn more. 

Composting machine is home built in farm workshop
The home built compost turner uses an adapted lorry rear axle and drive shaft to turn the windrow of compost

The PT 170 composter is a significant farm investment 
Soil with low organic content, few worms, little biological activity
Soil with low organic content, few worms, little biological activity

This soil is has been managed differently, with plenty of organic material resulting in a high worm count and good water retention
As chemical fertilisers become increasingly expensive, farmers who are wanting to reduce costs and save money will be turning to ideas such as compost and other methods to improve the fertility of their land through biology rather than chemistry. 

Building a compost turner in the workshop is the kind of project which will pay huge dividends over the next few years. The home made machine can be replaced by something bigger and more costly when composting experience is gained. 

Click HERE for more information on the home built machine

Further info:

Practical Farm Ideas is a good source of information on reduced tillage systems. There's a feature on Cover Cropping in Vol 22-1 which we forecast will become "The Next Farm Revolution', because it answers so many of today's problems: declining soil condition; increasing inputs especially of diesel, fertiliser and pesticides; increasing need for heavy expensive machinery; reduction in habitat for birds, wildlife and insects. The magazine is so enthused by the topic of cover cropping the next issue has a further feature that shows how a 3,000 acre Midlands farmer has made the conversion, has got rid of his big machines such as the Caterpillar Challenger 875C (which could use 120 litres of diesel/hr towing the Simba Solo), the John Deere 8530, and now does the whole farm with a couple of 240hp tractors, and at a push says he could do it with just one.

A subscription will ensure you receive this interesting farm publication through the post.

Mike Donovan
editor, Practical Farm Ideas

11 St Mary's St, Whitland, Carmarthenshire, SA34 0PY  T: 01994 240978

28 Brampton St, Ross on Wye, Herefordshire HR9 7EQ   T: 01989 218268

T:  01994 240978       M: 07778 877514   Twitter: @farmideas    

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Bovine TB moves up a gear - to the concern of all involved

New figures published today show an increase of 9.6 per cent in cattle slaughtered for TB in England, which has now reached a figure of 38,010. It provokes a number of serious concerns.

To summarise the problem:  The cost of compensation to the taxpayer rises as the costs in the following categories:
1. The compensation paid to farmers
2. Costs of testing - vet visits to farms etc
3. Costs of badger and other wildlife controls
Added to this is the cost to the farmer of lost sales of cattle and milk interruption, plus the costs of herding for testing, and associated weight losses. 

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Thorny question of agricultural wage controls

 NFU deputy president Meurig Raymond is firmly behind the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board saying "Removing this separate structure seems entirely consistent with modern notions of workers' rights, industrial relations and business management." 

He says few farm workers receive the minimum.....   

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Cleaning machinery prevents spread of seed and animal disease

Taking unwashed machines from one farm to another risks spreading disease

Moving farm machinery from one county to another, from one farm to another farm, or even from one field to the next field, has the real possibility of transferring seeds and diseases that can affect both plants and animals. How easy it is to finish one job, pack the harvester or spreader for transport, and drive off down the road to the next farm - or load the machine onto a truck or trailer and move it hundreds of miles to the next farm which needs the service. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Winter work on grassland will pay dividends

Some timely ideas for grassland farmers to think of doing now

A 'Think Piece' Blog:  Traditional grass management involves doing nothing over the winter months. Farmers wait until the soil warms up in the spring, when fertiliser is applied and the roller and the chain harrow get their annual outing. This Blog suggests that farmers who forget about their grassland over the winter are missing a trick. There's plenty of planning, and also when conditions are right some field work which will pay dividends in the following season.

Winter is the time for livestock farmers to plan the next season's grazing. Six months from now cattle and sheep will be getting much if not all their feed from the grass you grow, and the more pre-season preparation you can do the better grass production will result. Stock will grow, gain condition and provide financial returns on low cost grazing. 

What areas of the grazing need to be checked, and what can I do about it in the cold winter months?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Reducing cow feed costs by up to 10%

Feeding cattle is a skilled job

Many farmers get 'the boy' to do the feeding. He doesn't mind doing it - it's mechanical and not hard work. Neither is it too complicated. He can do it unsupervised. Unlike milking, where a mistake can lead to a disaster, feeding has fewer pitfalls.  So milking is seen as the most important work on the dairy farm, and even in a beef unit. feeding is often a routine left for someone who's had little or no training. 

Think again. Feed is the most costly input in both milk and beef. The combined cost of bought in concentrates and feed materials, plus the home grown or bought in forage is greater than the cost of labour or anything else. 

Friday, September 07, 2012

Organic Farming Takes a Knock

FOR TWO DECADES and more farmers have been told that doing it organically is the only 'sustainable' way to farm. In the past few weeks I have read two reports which question the benefits of organic farming.  These are two high profile studies come from the most prestigious sources - the universities of Oxford in the UK and Stanford in the USA. Both have gained considerable media exposure, and they conclude that conventional farming isn't as bad as we've been told.

I conclude that organic farming is beneficial to all farmers, as it provides a premium market for all types of food that has the effect of providing an uplift for the food market as a whole.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Quad bike gets electronic locking

The New Issue of Practical Farm Ideas, Vol 21, issue 2, has been printed, mailed to subscribers and will be in selected rural stores from Thursday Aug 9. Click through here for details and to order 

Our cover story in this new issue helps farmers keep their quad bikes - and other machinery - on the farm and not part of an insurance claim for theft.

Quad bikes are so often left with their keys in the ignition. It means that Fred can use it and leave the bike for Jim. That the keys won't fall out of the pocket when chasing sheep. Or, if the bike is parked close to where you're working, there's no chance it will be nicked in broad daylight.

Scallies will cruise by and check to see if the keys are there,

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Spotlight on The Dairy Crisis

The role of each party involved and why the minister might be deaf. 

A neighbouring dairy farmer dropped in yesterday...  "what can be done to get us out of this mess?" he asks. He's an efficient farmer, runs a herd of 140 cows with his son, and is very concerned about the milk price reductions due in August. 

I suggested farmers need to look at the components of the problem. What is the role of government? Of the farming unions as representatives of producers? Of milk buyers and, last but not least, the farmers themselves? Can farmers really expect Minister Jim Paice to order an increase in the milk price?

Practical Farm Ideas magazine helps farmers find new methods that improve efficiency. This blog shows how one farmer has gained real control over mastitis in his herd - with zero cases in 130 cows the year we visited him.

Home built back-flushing 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Let's get the London Milk March right!

Milk:  the on-going farming crisis

The presentation of the current dairying crisis needs planning and presentation. This article outlines what needs to be done by farming leaders, and the marchers in London. Dairy farmers need a better deal. But to get it they will need convincing arguments, a compelling presentation of the facts, and friends in high places. 

The hope is that the march will include these, as well as the passion and noise. 

The performance of farming leaders on Radio 4's 'Today' last week was seriously unconvincing

The Today Programme presenter John Humphrys is sympathetic to the dairy farmer's cause. For some years he had a dairy farm himself in Carmarthenshire,

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Wiseman milk price forecast correct

When on January 16, 2012  Müller Dairies bought Wiseman for £279.2m, the deal was said by Robert Wiseman to make strong strategic sense, to have synergy and the maximise the 'complementary positions' of the two companies.

The 360p/share deal looked good for Wiseman shareholders, who had been trading the stock at 250p. I discovered that a large proportion of the purchase was from a Deutsche Bank letter of credit for €250m, at a rate greater than 5%.

At the time we concluded that Müller would be wanting it's Wiseman dairy farmer suppliers to contribute to the cost, as the opportunities for an uplift in prices, despite the operating synergies, seemed limited.

So it is no surprise to hear that on April 30th Wiseman announced at they would be cutting farm gate prices by 2p (6.6%) to 26.42 p/standard litre.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Water harvesting saves farmer money

Practical Farm Ideas arable contributor Mark Pettit who farms 600ha of all combinable crops near Gainsborough

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The diesel question - future price trends, and cutting costs

As the price of oil rises the pain for buyers increases. Farmers are price takers and not price setters, so they have no possibility to raise their selling price of corn, meat or milk to take account of the rise in diesel. 
Securing supplies of diesel is a major concern for farmers today. Now is not the time for supplies to be interrupted. Each farmer has to make his own buying decision, and the relevant information he has to do this is scarce, even though commodity markets are in information overload, with facts mixed up with fiction, 

Friday, March 23, 2012

March 23

A less than neutral budget

Farming didn't get a mention in the Budget speech, but that doesn't mean it will have no effect on farming. In fact, the long term consequences could be quite considerable.

ON FUEL, the Chancellor is criticised for not giving an inch on the rising cost of fuel prices, and the confirmation of the increase in fuel duty this summer will surely make things harder for people in the country.

The answer is going to be greater economies on the farm. Fuel consumption is going to be of greater consideration when choosing tractors and machinery, and when deciding how to do farming operations. Will farmers continue to have a fuel arrangement with their contractor which

Monday, March 12, 2012

BBC Countryfile moves further away from farming

BBC Countryfile moves further away from farming

Many farmers are complaining that 'their' TV slot is being hi-jacked by people they describe as 'the sandal brigade', 'foodies and fadies'  and 'rural tourism' and so on. It's hard to deny it. 
But, as Andrew Thorman explained to a group of farming journalists from the GAJ, the audiences for all the farming programmes, including the early morning Farming Today, have increased

Friday, February 24, 2012

How productive is it to roll grassland?

The cost of diesel and time makes it important for each tractor job to have a positive financial outcome. This blog asks about the benefits of rolling grass in the spring, and suggests the outcome may actually be negative. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Farmers have a major role in drought and flood issues

Todays DEFRA conference should be looking at soil management

The up-coming drought in the S-E of England is worrying farmers, who are demanding concessions to any drought orders in order to protect their crops and livelihoods. Yet it is on their land that the rain mainly falls. Is modern land management, that is, the way farmers work the land, in any way responsible for the problems of drought and flood?  And if so, is there anything which can be done to help solve the problem? 

Practical Farm Ideas thinks there is.  For years

Saturday, February 04, 2012

EU funding: less for farming, more for science

Farm leaders need to focus on agri research funding as well as defending farmers' CAP entitlements

'Cut spending on agricultural support through Single Farm Payment and use the money on increased research' is not simply a call from UK universities wanting to protect their budgets, but is one which looks like getting the backing of Business Secretary Vince Cable. 
In a recent interview to the magazine Science|Business Vince Cable said "Overall UK government policy is to restrict the EU budget, but within that overall budget we would like to spend more on innovation" and he went on to say that money should be spent on science rather than agriculture. 
With the Science minister David Willetts right behind him, and PM David Cameron personally launching an overall UK Innovation Strategy, there's a good deal of support in Cabinet, and Caroline Spelman from Defra looks likely to be out-gunned. 
While the focus of innovation is on science outside agriculture, the hope is there will be opportunities for innovative ideas and developments in agriculture to be rewarded and financially encouraged, and this could and should include farmers. 
Will the farmer's greatest lobbying body, the NFU, catch the direction the wind is blowing and ease the way for a leg-up for ingenious farmers who have ideas which can make a difference throughout the world of agriculture? Plus making sure that agri science and technology is up there with other life sciences, engineering and other research areas. Or will the NFU stick to its guns and continue to focus on payments based on area and past entitlements?
Agri research has been under pressure for the past decade, and many valuable and well established centres either closed or minimised. A review of the present work, in both agri science and agri technology would be a useful starting point for the whole industry, farmers included. At present it always appears that there is significant duplication in some areas, while others are left unattended. 

Look through the FarmIdeas website and download the Complete Index from this page:

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Some 'modern' farmers are slow to change

Some 'modern' farmers are slow to change

For them, the risks of change are greater than the security of doing things the way they have been done for the past few decades.

Is there any other trade or business so resistant to change and technical development as farming? Air transport took a about a decade to make the huge change from propellers to jet engines. Medicine takes on new drugs and techniques as fast as they are approved. The print industry, in spite of huge union resistance, took up computers long before they became a part of household life. Retailing has gone on-line, phones gone mobile, cars diesel, broadcasting digital, and those in any of these industries who have taken the view that change can only make things worse have been truly left behind, sometimes finished.

Here are two recent experiences which tell me that farming is different. Take the case of the dairy farmer who has been shooting his 'surplus' bull calves for the past decade or so. When an alternative is suggested, an alternative that might be slightly more productive, which might use this by-product of milk production as a human food source rather than an expendible waste product, which maybe a more ethical option to shooting them for disposal, he hums and haws, looking for good reasons why his calf policy is still right economically, and therefore, as a business-like farmer, ethically okay as well. The other farming head-in-the-sand is a 1000 acre cereal grower who totally resists the idea of replacing his plough and power harrow policy, justifying his rejection of min-till and other techniques by saying that he's "a traditional farmer, in an locality that is made up of traditional farmers - we plough and have always ploughed", someone who considers his cultivation methods makes him a pillar of society and sobriety, giving him the highest agricultural standards, even though the comparative costs, both in terms of carbon footprint and ££s, are considerably higher.

The case of the calf shooting farmer came on the BBC Countryfile programme of Jan 22 2012. Presenter John Craven looked at humane 'rose' veal, and how it might provide a market for the surplus bull calves from dairy herds.  Going into the street with some ready-to-eat cooked samples to test consumer reaction, and getting approval; talking to the meat trade and recording positive comments, he then gets his boots on a talks to our commercial dairy farmer.

The interesting part of the interview was the farmers response to John Craven's asking what was stopping him rear the calves rather than shoot them at birth.

"It's not so simple," the farmer explained. "I don't know if I have the skills to rear these calves as veal. I'd need to find out the techniques, the costs and find markets for the finished rose veal calves." It sounded as if he was saying "I don't want to be bothered, my business is alright as it is." even when faced with the evidence that there might well be a better solution to his calf problem.

Which takes me back to the original question - is farming the trade that's most resistant to change? In what respect is farming different to other industries? The answer must be that some modern day farmers are very wary of new methods, and find they can afford to be so. For them, the risks of change are greater than the security of doing things the way they have been done for the past few decades. In a business which has such significant tax payer support - amounting to nearly half the Total Income From Farming, they have a financial buffer which other businesses don't enjoy, and one which allows older methods to remain financially feasible.

How good it would be to hear the dairy farmer tell John Craven - 'it sounds an interesting idea, I'm going to try rearing a few of these calves for veal and get in touch with people who can market them'; and from the arable man 'it would be worth while experimenting min-till on a field next autumn, even with some adapted machinery - I would like to find out more'.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

"If you want to become richer than a banker, become a farmer" says top US investor

The message that the world of global food surpluses is coming to an end is now well understood. The news headlines might have recently been dominated by riots, the Arab Spring, phone hacking and Amy Winehouse, but food and energy supplies are an issue which be with for for many decades. 

Farmers are the people who know how to grow and harvest food, and, if we're all going to be eating in 20 years time, they will need to get even better at it than they are today.

From being a menial, low paid, dirty job with a bit of shooting or ferretting being the only perk, the business of growing crops and looking after livestock suddenly looks very different. 

Time magazine reports the legendary investor Jim Rogers as saying "if you want to become richer than a banker, become a farmer." They concluded that although being a farmer wasn't too sexy it will certainly make you rich.

It's starting to happen. While real estate prices in the USA are falling, the value of the average farm has doubled in the past six years. When you travel to farming country you don't see poverty, but prosperity. "The local banks in Grand Island, Nebraska, are sitting on a lot of cash, the Case combine harvester factory has a full order book, and the local GM car dealership says this is the best year ever, with customers who normally buy a Chevy Suburban trading up to a Cadillac Escalade. Prosperity is reflected in house prices as well, construction is good and Nebraska's unemployment is just 4.1%, a different league to the 11.7% in California. 

The same is happening in the UK, but perhaps with less publicity. Last year farm land prices in the UK rose 6% and have multipled by three since 2001. Land is attracting buying interest from farmers and investors, better grain and farm commodity prices are rising prosperity in farming areas, something which has not been seen for decades.

This bullish activity means there's value in knowing how to do farm successfully. The new issue of Practical Farm Ideas reveals a few secrets of the business, which when coupled with the other issues published each quarter since 1992 creates a total course in practical farming. 

Practical Farm Ideas in this issue shows farmers how they can reduce the time taken filling seed drills, fertiliser spreaders, and potato planters. It features plastic see-through tractor window guards which stops stones and debris breaking them; shows them how to make an extension for their pick-up bed so they can carry more stuff in the back; and how to make a lever handle for an electric drill which makes drilling awkwardly placed holes in building uprights easy to do. Altogether there are 45 workshop ideas which will help farmers do jobs easier, cheaper and better - ideas that are particularly useful now that we really do need the food they produce. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Dairy farmers face tough winter

Numbers of farmers in the dairy sector face a tough winter, and the shortage of fodder and bedding for their stock will only add to their troubles. The article suggests that the situation could be helped if those farmers growing crops would bale more of their straw, and even bale straw from oil seed rape. In this way farmers can be seen to be working together. 

To the arable farmer the straw from his crops of wheat, barley and rape is often a minor headache. He wants the field cleared to get in with the cultivator. Chopping and spreading adds some nutrient and saves some fertiliser, and means the next task can be done directly. Baling straw spells delay, albeit  some extra income. The bigger the corn acreage the greater the headache created by straw. 

To the livestock man, straw adds fibre to the diet, and makes the silage go further. It keeps livestock clean, helps reduce disease, is 'inspector friendly'. Buying, and paying for it is also a headache, particularly in years like this when supplies are tight and prices sky high. 

Farming unions and other groups should be able to help pull the two sides together, though ultimately the decider is, of course, the costs and returns. It's not just a job for the farming unions, there are machinery rings and agricultural societies which can do their bit as well, and magazines and the media can play their part too. 

Baling rape straw is not as daft as it sounds

Promoting the use of alternatives to wheat and barley straw is another useful activity. Oil seed rape straw is routinely chopped and incorporated, but some farmers have experimented with using it for bedding with considerable success. OSR straw has its problems: it can be too green and sappy for baling and so many agress it is best got rid of by chopping and spreading on the field; unlike barley straw it has no feed value so not worth the bother; as a bedding material it remains an unknown quantity for many farmers. 

Yet some livestock farmers have found it a good substitute, and some mixed farms manage the job of baling so it is usable in the winter as bedding. Rape straw can also be used in cattle rations made in a mixer wagon, and Jennifer Picken, ruminant nutritionist at Keenan systems, says it helps maximise the feeding value of silage - something which is all important for dairy farmers this year.  Don't use too much and mix it well, is the advice. Rape straw is best as feed when not too stemmy and baled dry. These qualities are less important when the straw is  used as bedding. 

Baled rape straw can also be useful as fuel in a big bale incinerator. 

Another alternative are rushes. One Practical Farm Ideas contributor cuts and bales the rushes on his low lying wet land and saves £60 on the cost of wintering each bullock. Instead of using the topper he mows, turns if necessary, and then round bales the 'crop', which provides the cattle with good aftermath grazing - all the better for having the trash removed. 

These are positive practical ideas which can be implemented by the farming community.

With the rising price, and shortage of inputs, NFU Cwmru calls for a 26% rise in the price of milk, from the present 26p average to 33p a litre. David James who chairs the Pembrokeshire NFU says feed prices have risen sharply, with compound feed some 30% over last year, ammonium nitrate up 50 % and fuel 25%, while the price of milk at the farm gate has lifted just 11%.  A number of farmers are going to find forage supplies tight this year, though not all is grim news as silage quality is good. 

Hoping for a price increase is no way to plan the future of the business. In love, war, and farming, there's always the need for action as well as hope. When unions join together to promote action which results in one farmer helping another - even if there's no profit in it - there's evidence that all are trying to resolve a problem. This is surely feasible when it comes to straw. For while arable farmers keep the straw choppers going, livestock men are wondering where on earth they are going to get supplies. 

Providing practical help for the sector under pressure underlines the urgent need for economic action, and shows that the farming industry as a whole is ' doing all we can to help'. 

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The future of the small family farm

The future of the small family farm

Defra's interest in exploring how agricultural tenancies can be made more competitive and supportive of people entering farming might be seen as more political than practical. A reduction in the number of farming holdings has significant benefits for government. Small farms make up a significant and deserving section of the rural poor, they use technology and methods which are out-dated and thus often less environmentally friendly, they have poor records and management systems. They are often involved in the supply of goods, such as eggs and vegetables, direct to the consumer, which requires difficult and expensive regulation. 

Incomes of large farms are generally satisfactory and have fewer social issues. Large farms are easier to administer, and, being mainly concerned with the supply of commodities to the processing and supply trade, have appropriate inspections and regulation. Large farms have recording systems and are fully conversant with the various departments. 

The disadvantage or risk of an industry made up of large farms is less obvious. However, they are less likely to pass on husbandry skills, as they increasingly rely on a workforce from outside the UK. They are more concerned with mono-culture and are less diversified in terms of enterprise and genetics. Large farms suit the supply of large retailers, but have difficulty in developing niche and high value products. Large farms are inflexible in operation, as investment and skills are contained in a limited and specialised area of farming. 

Yet the evidence suggests that soil - the basis of all agriculture - is improved by mixed farming operations and is damaged by mono-culture. 

Small farms have a long and healthy future in Britain. Their problems arise when they are managed as if they were large units - ie supplying commodities to processors like their larger counterparts, but in smaller quantities. 

Excerpted from 'The Future for Small Family Farms' :  a talk by Mike Donovan, editor, Practical Farm Ideas.