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Is it becoming worth the gamble? – Agronomist & Arable Farmer – David Stead

David Stead weighs up input costs and potential yield as agricultural inflation soars ...

A good autumn season has winter crops in generally excellent fettle in Yorkshire, as I write. And as the last fields are drilled after roots and maize, the earliest have received BYDV sprays and are being put to bed for winter.

Some are nicely into tillering growth stages, particularly September-sown barley. This sets us up nicely for a good amount of yield potential coming into the spring – how much it’ll cost us to realise, or if it is realised awaits to be seen, but the job of arable farming has certainly become a lot riskier, with recent figures suggesting agricultural inflation being at 21% to the end of September.

Thankfully, a strong wheat price does go a long way to compensate for this although it only offsets the risk once its captured, and hence conversations on farm have taken a significant turn to farm business management over the past few months.

It’s almost inevitable that some reductions in fertiliser rates are likely to be seen – although my personal feeling is that with good use of technology in the form of nitrogen management tests (Nmin tests), leaf and sap analysis and precision use of inputs as well as our generally higher levels of organic matters as a result of being in a largely mixed farming area, we stand a good chance of producing some very good margined crops with our clients in 2022.

There is a lot of talk and drilling demonstrations ongoing on farm regarding reduced cultivations or indeed direct drilling. Having generally easy access to organic matters locally means I would suggest the soils in my area to be in good heart, but we can always do better, and the machine of the moment seems to be a low disturbance toolbar. A light cultivation to produce a stale seedbed followed by a toolbar either on or just before the drill appears to have worked a treat, and I must say that I am a fan thus far.

What’s not to like about using less diesel to produce the same yield? In all the noise to make agriculture greener, there occasionally appears to be lost in the narrative that if it’s not financially viable, it’s not sustainable at all. And so, a ‘hybrid’ low till route with more efficient use of machines and fuels with benefit to soil health to produce to the same levels looks to fit well for us.

Weed control so far this autumn has been good, with just enough moisture at about the right time to keep residuals active, although what is clear to see is that fortune has favoured the brave, as the October flushes of both black-grass and perhaps its even more troublesome cousin, ryegrass, have been significantly greater than the September levels.

Mild weather towards the end of October will bring decisions on using contact material where grassweeds have come through residuals and top-ups if it’s deemed a viable option, although I feel that this autumn has again shown the clear value of cultural control before the chemical cans in terms of grassweeds, and spring could show the same with BYDV and Septoria control. Patience pays.

Potatoes have been as variable as I think I’ve ever known in both yield and quality, with everything from sublime at best to stock feed in the worst places. Growth cracks are common, likely caused by Rhizoctonia because of such a wet and cold start to life, as are uneven tuber samples. I believe the cold April and May as well as a dry August/September have a lot to answer for.

The economics of growing the crop look to be, as ever, a much riskier affair – contracts are going to have to take a significant jump if they are to reflect the increased costs of fertiliser, fuel, labour, storage with DMN, power and PPPs, all costs which even a very financially robust business with have to look seriously at the reward of shouldering and consider whether it’s worth the gamble.

Are we entering a new dawn of the end of cheap food on our shelves?

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