Thursday, March 09, 2017

Brexit: Farming faces an uncertain future

Agriculture Minister George Eustice was in the spotlight for two hours yesterday, (March 8, 2017) being ‘grilled’ by people from both Houses of Parliament on the future for farming after Brexit. 

This Blog covers:
Useful pointers to the post Brexit direction provided by the Minister in answer to questions from Neil Parish, Kate Hoey and others. 
  • Our headings:  
  • The issue of Ireland
  • Opportunities for farmers post-Brexit
  • How the new policy will be constructed - decided after negotiation or a load of Ready-Mix?
  • Will the Treasury dominate the decisions?
  • How will The Great Repeal Act work? 
  • A General Election is likely in 2020. Farm policy needs to be sorted before the campaign starts.
  • The supply of foreign workforce.
  •       A 19th century parallel:
  • The repeal of the Corn Laws took away farmers’ and landowners’ huge trading benefits. 
  • Lessons for today. 
  • The contribution of Practical Farm Ideas magazine. 
Readers will be more than familiar with the farming issues raised at this Parliamentary Committee. The post-Brexit access for UK farmers to their EU markets; import controls from non-EU countries such as NZ; the continuation of subsidies including Basic Payment; the future supply of foreign workers; the environment and others are all a serious worry to farmers at the present time. 

Many readers will themselves have spent time discussing these with their local NFU, neighbours, MPs and others. In addition there have been numerous conferences on these issues, and will be more. The Brexit coals can be raked over endlessly and I believe there’s a danger the topic will become all consuming taking the farmer’s focus away from the business. Uncertainty can easily lead to inaction while the industry waits for government decisions to be made. 

Yet businesses need effective and progressive management irrespective of what happens in Whitehall. This means looking for useful cost-cutting, looking also for areas of risk which can be reduced. In this article I review the Minister’s contribution to the House of Lords meeting, and compare the likely changes with those of a previous time in agricultural history. 

Some useful pointers to the post Brexit direction. 

We have been told that nothing can really start until the EU Article 50 to leave the EU is triggered, so it was hardly surprising that Minister Eustice was unable to provide anything too concrete. Nonetheless the meeting identified the areas of greatest concern, the measures which can be taken, and the direction of ministerial and hence government thinking. Two issues stood out: his thoughts on area payments (Basic Payment) and the second on environmental schemes. Farmer, MP and Defra chairman Neil Parrish had a major role to play in the meeting. The following is a selection of topics raised. 

Neil Parish (NP): Ireland needs special attention. At present agriculture works as a single entity with farm produce and goods crossing the border continually. It presents a major problem. Borders will need to remain open even when the industry in North and South is working under rules.
George Eustice (GE): Let’s see what happens when we get there. Negotiations about Ireland, and indeed the channel crossings will be a priority.

Kate Hoey: What opportunities are there for UK farmers post Brexit?  
GE: South America and Asia are big markets, and UK farming is internationally competitive. The USA market for organic is large and expanding. EU food producers in Spain, France, Poland and Italy have been lobbying hard for continued access to the UK - which calls for reciprocation. 

NP:  How are you going to put a new farm policy together? is the process to be given a budget and then fit an ag policy around it, or is it the other way round - a policy which needs funding? NP is concerned that there will be detailed stakeholder discussions and consultations and then the policy will be presented “like a load of Ready-Mix”.
GE: Neither at present, and certainly no budget. The opportunity is to devise a program which works for farmers and consumers.
NP: Experience shows that the Treasury always has the whip hand in Cabinet. Given the promise that £350m/week will be available for the NHS, farm payments will cover 10 weeks - something which the Treasury might be happy to get their hands on.
GE: The great benefit of Cabinet government is that these decisions are made collectively, with checks and balances.

NP: Will The Great Repeal Bill work by transferring EU legislation in one block and approving it so it continues to be law, and then unravelling parts over time. Will agric policies be repealed? 
GE: Yes, but there will be pressure to amend the legislation. 
NP: There is likely to be a General Election in 2020 and the government will want a farm programme in place before the campaign is under way. Which means decisions in 2019 or before, not leaving much time.
GE: That’s true, and there will be reform. I am not a fan of area payments, which might appeal to theoretical economists but Single Farm Payment and Basic Payment present many problems. A decoupled payment system has the potential of delivering greater benefit. 
NP: A farmer recently said “It’s not leaving the EU that’s of concern, it’s what we do with our new-found freedom”. Fears the Treasury will strip the industry of much of its public finance. 

Question: Concerned about UK farm foreign workforce which is already being recruited for 2018. What happens in 2019/20? 
GE: Well there’s no change in rules for this and next year, and may well continue for 2018/19. The situation is fully appreciated and Cabinet will make its collective decision. 

Question: The future of environmental schemes are of concern. Will they remain the same?
GE: Mindful of making changes to increase simplicity. The EU regulations on woodland are a good example of complexity. First it needs defining, and we say that a group of 100+ trees constitute a wood. What about saplings? So we define the size of a tree that complies. But then some grow faster and larger than others. What about Christmas trees? Likes the Wildlife Enhancement Schemes of the 1980s and 90s. Working with partners such as Woodland Trusts, and others. Wanting schemes which work well and are simple, less bureaucracy. 

The influence of politicians - the Repeal of Milk Quotas 2015

The first version of this article read:  'exiting the EU posed the greatest event in farming since the Agriculture Act 1947'. Luckily it took me only a few moments to realise the basic mistake - the ’47 Act protected farmers while Brexit is going to reduce the public funding of the industry. 1947 introduced a price guarantee and was followed by the farm price protection through the EU Common Agriculture Policy.  
Brexit is likely to do the reverse. In fact the current fear is that concessions will be made on imports of food so UK exports of cars and other manufacturers will not be interrupted. 
Government actions play a crucial part in farm incomes. There was comparative stability after 1947, even though farmers’ leaders were keen to complain. The CAP has supported farming through a wide range of measures, even if they have involved hours of form filling. 
A recent step back from this occurred when milk quotas (1985 - 2015) were removed. The NFU was broadly supportive of the change and claimed there was no risk of over-production as in the past as the guaranteed price “now merely serves as a safety net”. They went on to say “Volatility is a normal characteristic of agricultural markets.” And they were right. Farm gate milk prices have diverged hugely depending on contracts - from 18 to 30+ p/l. The abolition of milk quotas caused major disruption to those in the sector, and resulted in prices dropping from around 30p to less than 20p in a matter of 18 months. Not at all what the NFU forecast or wanted for its members. The consequence was real difficulty for a those producers on highly volatile contracts while others were sitting reasonably comfortably. The Milk Quota issue showed farmers that the business side of farm management is of equal importance to the efficiency of production. Under the MMB all farmers worked to the same contract while today their sale contract is the most important factor for profitability.   

A 19th century parallel?  The Repeal of the Corn Laws
We need look further back in time to 1846 when the highly protective and lucrative Corn Laws, enacted in 1815, were revoked. And here’s what actually happened:
In 1813, a House of Commons Committee recommended excluding foreign-grown corn until the price of domestically grown corn was 80 shillings a quarter (a Winchester quarter equals 8 bushels or 291 litres* making 5 quarters to the ton) or 4 x 5 = £20/ton in their money or around £1,500/t today. The corn price never reached 80/-, but it did trade at 70/- a quarter for some of the time the Laws were enacted. The Laws halted corn imports, and created a shortage. Those unable to buy went hungry. Whole family budgets went on buying food, and a high proportion of this was corn. With no money for clothes, demand for cloth dropped and mill workers were laid off. Similarly for shoes, candles, anything which could be economised on. Meanwhile farmers and landowners were making considerable, huge, profits. They built themselves large farmhouses and farm buildings, and bought land which went up significantly in value. As landowners the Church, colleges and institutions also benefitted. The effect of the Corn Laws on the UK economy (which then included the whole of Ireland) was huge and made worse with the Irish Famine (1844-8). The political controversy became fierce as the effects on the wider economy became more severe. Liberals under Charles Villiers proposed motions for Corn Law repeal every year from 1837 to 1845, and it was the great Irish famine which finally forced their repeal. 
On January 27, 1846, Peel gave a three-hour speech saying that the Corn Laws would be abolished on February 1, 1849, after three years of gradual reductions of the tariff, leaving only a 1 shilling duty per quarter. The price of corn dropped to average 52/- per quarter between 1850 - 1870 and in 1886 was 31/-. Imports counted for 2% in the 1830s, 24% in the 1860s and 65% in the 1880s. By 1885 the cereal acreage was reduced by a million acres (the total today is 7.7million acres) and the number of farmworkers dropped 92,250 between 1871 - 1881. 
Farmers survived this turmoil by changing the way they managed their businesses. Practical changes to the way they farmed, ending enterprises that became unprofitable. Those who clung to what they did in when corn was 70/- found themselves making heavy losses when the price was in the 40/-s. Yields at the time were 20-30 bushels/ac (1/2 - 3/4 ton/ac).

Lessons for today

Today's uncertain future concerns both imports and subsidies, and both are very much part of the Brexit negotiations. Nobody is making the parallel with the Corn Law Repeal, but farmers need to be prepared for a considerable change.   
The farmer's focus must be on his business, and the huge changes that the British public has voted for need to be looked at through the prism of the farm, it assets and liabilities, it's management.
The wider EU issue is in danger of becoming a huge distraction for farmers. There are a multiplicity of conferences and events all hinged around Brexit, and all well attended. No wonder. The issue is the biggest shake-up in the industry but let us hope not the huge effect which the Corn Law repeal had those years ago. 

The contribution of Practical Farm Ideas magazine

Focussing on soil condition has been a longstanding subject area and in Summer 2013 (issue 22-2) we created a new major section which joined the “Made it Myself”, “FarmWorld”, “Financial Focus” and other sections. The “Soil+ Cover Cropping International” section has now totalled nearly 100 pages of editorial. No-till, zero-till, conservation agriculture, call it what you like, represents the most effective way to reduce costs of cereal growing while improving soil condition and fertility at the same time. 
Adding value to conventional farm products have been another regular feature. From the man who nets £1,000 from an acre of sweet corn which he sells during the season from a roadside table and honesty box to the livestock man who sells at retail prices all the meat produced on 400 acres - we have reviewed and continue to explore business ideas for regular farmers. 
Managing farm finances are never easy, especially when practical work on the farm dominates the working week. The regular family farmer not only is pushed for time, but has less understanding both of the importance and techniques of finance. Financial Focus makes the complex topic understandable.

* There's confusion about 'quarters' which reader John Raven has kindly pointed out in an email. Google it and you'll find many saying a quarter is half a hundredweight, 28 lbs. But it seems that grain was priced by the Winchester quarter which makes much more sense. John also says "As an aside, just to show how profitable farming must have been in the 19th century, we bought a farm in 1970 for £247/acre. That farm was sold in 1870 for £300/acre. No allowance for then and now values , just the price of the day." 

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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Is there a future for smallholders?

Summary:  Is the small farm becoming extinct? Are property prices making a few acres no more than a dream for many?   This analysis suggests there are opportunities and a future, and gives good reasons why the small farm sector should not be abandoned by either politicians or farming unions.

“What are the prospects for smallholders today?” was a question posed by a reader this morning. “The small farms seem to be disappearing around here (Derbyshire) with the big boys expanding like nobody’s business. Are there any small farms left near you?”  Farms are increasing in size, and big ones expand at the expense of the smaller ones. With houses in the country fetching high prices there’s an incentive for farms to be divided. 

Small farms are being sucked up by larger ones by:

1.  Sellers can divide the property into two. The house, buildings and five acres, and there's the land to be sold in one or a number of lots.

2.  A farmer wanting more land buys a complete farm and then divides it into house + buildings as one lot which is sold and the land which is kept.

3.  Smaller farmers can decide to stop day-to-day farming yet remain an ‘active farmer’ through contract agreements. Or rent land on tenancies drafted to maintain eligibility for Agricultural Property Relief for inheritance tax.

4.  Faster tractors with larger loads increase the feasible range of operations for off-lying land. 

My caller wanted to know the future. I replied it is surely based on how entrepreneurial they are. Many use their limited land much the same as a regular farmer, selling stock in the mart, but the returns are very small, if positive at all. It surely is a life-style choice, nothing more. But if the microscopic income from their small farm is enhanced by a generous pension, or work off the holding, or a separate and profitable business on the holding, why not enjoy the the life-style? Far more interesting than many other occupations, like golf or cruising.

The current popularity of ‘country’ - 4x4s, Agas, clothing, boots, farm fresh food, dogs and so on - stimulates the attraction and value of country properties. Those in possession have a useful asset, even if it’s not one producing much income. Those aspiring to farm will find smallholdings don’t provide the entrĂ©e into the business that it once did. The initial 20 - 60 acre holding is over-priced for those wanting to farm conventionally. 

Yet a few acres and some reasonable buildings plus a polytunnel of two have the potential to provide a worthwhile rural business, but it won’t be selling a few fat lambs or a steer or two, or selling a few tons of corn. 

Direct selling to the final customer is obviously key, and the range of vegetables, herbs, flowers and exotics is considerable. Specialising in off-beat varieties of plants or livestock can be very significant. The popularity of 'bronze' turkeys among the food writers has developed a demand which, a few years ago, was quite specialised. Less common varieties can often find a premium price which more than off-sets lower yield. 

Providing a service for local, and less local farmers is another route to financial stability. The smallholding has the potential to provide a base, be it farm contracting, secretarial work or something entirely off-piste which matches the skills and interests with the local, or even national market. While many standard farm contractors are off-shoots of conventional farm businesses, others can build up successful operations in pest control, woodland work as well as fencing and other needed jobs which the ever-expanding conventional farmer needs to buy in. 

The future of the smallholder is far from dull and those involved shouldn’t see themselves as a dying breed. Regulations and risks will always be a part of their lives, as they are for anyone with any type of business. The popularity of their main asset, the property itself, says they are not alone in valuing both life-style as well as finding they can achieve an income which pays the bills and maybe more besides.

Small farms post-Brexit

The chances of Whitehall and Westminster downgrading the farming sector is likely. The demands on public funds from health, education and defence are very likely to overshadow the needs of farming. Not only will this threaten payments it is likely to result in am effort to reduce the administrative costs of farm subsidies.
Cutting out small farmers would make a big reduction in the work of the Rural Payments Agency, as well as making the job of application easier as well. HMRC have simplified VAT for small companies, so there’s a precedent. Farm subsidies for small holdings could be made on a formula or algorithm that is easy to use.
There’s a danger that payments might be reduced, on the basis the holdings are part-time, hobby sized, unimportant. It is an argument which could be quite logically used by the farming unions in their negotiations, on the basis their membership is made up of larger full time farmers.
This would be a mistake. Small farms, family units, are an important source of British born labour and provides starters with the chance of getting going. Building a farm business from a low base remains possible.   

Further reading: 
  • Swiss dairy farmer rents out his cows - and keeps their milk!  Alpine 20 cow dairy herd engages those interested in the traditional way of life and cheese production, and has self-catering accommodation for members to use. Practical Farm Ideas 25-3
  • Rabbit netting machine rolls out and buries netting - 1000m/hr  Practical Farm Ideas 19-4
  • Garden playground ideas, all made in farm workshop  Practical Farm Ideas 18-2

Every issue has innovations and ideas with the potential of building to a business based in a smallholding. 

Friday, August 05, 2016

Badger contact survey jumped on as evidence that culling is ineffective

Today's breaking news that badgers and cattle keep away from each other in the field and don't make contact is hardly a surprise to any farmer with cattle. 

You just don't see the two animals mixing. Yet we all know that badgers poo and pee in the fields, roll and play in the grass, take water from streams and drinking troughs if they can reach inside, visit feed stores and maize silage clamps, spreading TB as they go. And we know that the cattle will graze that grass, drink from stream, eat the silage. How long the infection is live must be known -surely someone in science has found out how long the bTb bug is viable in the meadow, and whether it can be transferred in silage, and what, if anything can kill it. 

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Today's news comes from research funded by Defra and done by ZSL, the Zoological Society of London based in London Zoo. They had collars fitted to badgers and cattle which monitored their movement and incidents when the species were within 2 metres. Why ZSL was the chosen institution is unclear, as there are many others with greater knowledge of cattle, farming and even badgers.

It comes to much the same conclusion as research done last year by AFB in N Ireland which investigated the frequency of badge/cattle contact. They too used proximity collars which they describe as new and exciting technology. They discovered that cattle interacted with each other and badgers did the same, but "at no time were badgers and cattle recorded as coming within direct close-range contact (< 2m) with each other during the study."

The Zoological Society was keen to make their research results news. As soon as it was published it was clear that it would be interpreted by badger groups as a cast iron reason to cancel further culling, and this of course has happened. The misplaced  conclusion is not helped by the opening words of the report: "Close contact between badgers and cattle may not be responsible for the transmission of bTb… " and you have to get further into the story the find out that "This suggests that transmission… is likely to occur more frequently from contamination of the two species shared environment, rather than through direct badger-cattle contact."

Any member of a badger protection society would be unable to resist drawing the conclusion, and it won't be long before we are back in the same place over TB, with no control of badgers in hot spots and a consequent increase in infection.

As expected, the conclusion of the study is for another study to be conducted. Commenting on the study, Professor Woodroffe said: “It has been known for a long time that badgers can transmit TB to cattle – but without knowing how they do it, it is hard to offer farmers advice on the most promising ways to protect their herds. Our study provides the strongest evidence yet that transmission is happening through the environment, helping to explain why controlling TB is so difficult. This work marks the first step towards identifying more effective ways to reduce transmission between badgers and cattle, and also potentially better ways to manage cattle-to-cattle transmission as well.”

"Having identified the environment as the likely location of transmission, ZSL’s scientists are now conducting the next phase of research to identify where in the environment the disease bacteria are concentrated and encountered by badgers and cattle."

Unsurprisingly, comments on the media have been considerable, and generally oppose culling. The media presence of badger protection groups has always been far greater than that of farmers, who since 2009 have had some 240,000 cattle culled - 36,000 in the last year.

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 Published quarterly since 1992

The BTb issue is by no means going away, in fact it is getting worse. I have been looking at the figures which show an increase in herds newly infected, but at a slightly slower rate than I anticipated in 2013.

The major worry is that the spread of the disease is continuing so a number of areas of low risk are now moving into a high risk category. The low risk are being tested only every 4 years, which seems hardly sufficient to monitor and control by culling the disease which appears able to move a considerable distance in that period of time.

But I'm no scientist, and frankly can't understand all the figures contained in the Defra stats .

BTb and EU agri negotiations

If the threat of BTb hitting your herd and the subsequent closing of cattle movements and loss of production isn't bad enough, the consequence on post-Brexit trade deals could make things even worse. Large rises in the numbers of cattle being slaughtered in some parts of the country - in Clwyd the number increased by 125% in the 12 months to May - there is every chance the problem will be used by EU countries to control the trade of products. New Zealand had problems with infected possums and implemented mass cullings as a prelude to agreeing overseas trade deals. While in Wales the number of herds under BTb restrictions has fallen, the has been a 41% rise in the numbers being slaughtered. 

What Practical Farm Ideas contributors have done to help

1.  Re-located all field troughs to badgers can't use them
2.  Improved and strengthened fences that are close to setts.
3.  Fenced off some sacrifice ground close to setts, and running a mower over them to keep scrub back and prevent sett from expanding
4.  Made the whole dairy unit badger proof by fencing between buildings and having badger proof gates (old pig pens with vertical bars make useful ones) that are closed at night and when there's no activity. The stockade includes silage clamps, parlour, cubicles, feed store, calving boxes etc.

The twitteraria:

Essex Badger PG ‏‪@EssexBadgers‬  4h
An important scientific study was published today which concluded that badgers avoid cattle and do NOT pass BTB... ‪ ‬

Badgergate ‏‪@Badgergate‬  4h
4 hourBenefits of ‪#badgercull‬ accrue v slowly but harmful effects, such as spreading TB more widely, happen v fast ‪ …‬

Hunt Saboteurs ‏‪@HuntSabs‬  8h
8 hours agoA wake up call that farmers should be implementing better bio-security measures and the badger cull be scrapped

(((Keith MEP)))
Verified acco ‏‪@GreenKeithMEP‬  9h
9 hours agoReport exposes the Gov't's bovine TB 'control' measures as nothing more than mass cruelty supported by bad science

Scott ‏‪@Sneekyboy‬  9h
9 hours agoDear English Peeps, please can you stop letting UK Gov shoot Badgers now we know they dont spread Bovine TB to cows

bovine tb ‏‪@bovinetb‬  Jul 27
How TB prevalence in ‪#HERDS‬ across England and Wales has changed since 1996. ‪#tbfree‬ ‪#badgercull‬ ‪#stopthecull‬

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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Where is EU farm policy heading?

Due to the dependence of UK farming on EU subsidies, the referendum is critical for the sector. Where is EU farm policy heading? Does the EU Commissioner have the appetite to help distressed sectors? Has he any further plans to provide relief? 

The count-down to the EU referendum has begun and voters and politicians need to get real, put aside all the crazy facts and figures they have been throwing around, and make a serious assessment of what is round the corner - should we stay or should we go. 

Farmers probably have the most to gain or lose from the decision, as half their income is through payments from Brussels.  They have more that's directly at stake than any other sector. The NHS isn't funded by the EU, and neither are schools. Farmers need leaders, analysts and the national media to get real with the topic and tell them the consequences of their vote. Politicians need to do the same. Empty promises and distorted facts put out to get votes are not satisfactory.

Hence 'Where is EU farm policy heading?' 

Last week I was in the Netherlands at the conferences and events surrounding the Dutch presidency of the Council, which gave me the chance to briefly meet Commissioner Hogan as well as ag ministers from other EU countries. He is enthusiastic for further CAP changes, even before the latest scheme has settled down. 'Innovation' was the word on his and other official lips, but nobody was prepared to define it. I mentioned the value of low tech but high return innovations but he gave me little more than a guffaw and a "try telling that to hi-tech Dutch farmers!" It seems to me he wants small farmers to have robots to milk cows and do other jobs.. so if you're a small farmer with new ideas, particularly any that involve electronics, you may be in luck!

Commissioner Phil Hogan and Minister Martinje van Dam provide a polished performance for agri journalists, both calling for farm innovation

Commissioner Hogan implied the EU had done what it could over the current crisis in dairy and pigs. He said that 23 measures to assist the dairy sector had been put in place by the EU, yet 8 of the 28 countries had yet to implement them - all which indicated to him a lack of national concern. It sounds  significant, but there are obvious reasons why some countries would not bother. The dairy crisis is hardly going to effect Malta, or Luxembourg, or even Croatia and Cyprus. Other EU nations with suffering dairy farmers may well not have the administrative mechanisms to implement his 23 measures. The Commissioner provided an answer that may be satisfactory in political circles, but was not what any UK or elsewhere being paid a pittance for milk wanted to hear. 

The EU makes national governments impotent to provide for their farmers

There is much which can be done at EU level to help the dairy sector, and in fact this is pretty much the only level which can provide help. The dominance of EU regulations makes national governments impotent in this crisis - other than supporting the farming charities which are asked to pick up the emotional pieces. Farmers with poor collateral - tenants, heavily mortgaged owner-occupiers - are finding it difficult to get medium term loans from their bankers.

Arrangement fees, surveys and relatively high interest rates put undue pressure on farmers who have been encouraged by the EU and national governments to turn on the milk taps. Many dairy farmers were rising to the challenge provided by the abolition of quotas together with generous targets provided by national governments. Farmers have risked their money on expansion on the basis of strong signals from governments.

It is also interesting to hear that 80% of Dutch dairy output is sold to Friesland Campagnia, a farmer's co-operative. UK milk marketing has been ravaged by 'EU regulations' and the result is chaos and miserable prices. The MMB was not acceptable to the EU.  Splitting it into regional businesses called Milk Marque was no good. Big plants, such as the one in Whitland, were closed - was this the EU, or other dairy companies wanting to reduce processing capacity, so screwing the farmers price a bit more? All was done with the approval of the great and good in UK farming. Dutch milk prices have been held up to around 24c, 20p/litre, a different league to what is paid to many in the UK.

At the press conference there was, as always, a choreographed procedure which allowed for minimal actual investigation - something which I and many other authorised journalists find frustrating. The 10-15 minutes allocated time passes with the Commissioner, and others on the podium (in this case the Dutch Minister) giving detailed answers to sometimes obscure questions. It's just what they like. The time soon passes and the slick MC in charge soon calls time and the big wigs file off stage. Which is where they get caught for 'off-the-record' statements. Does the Commissioner really have such a packed schedule that he can only take 15 minutes of press questions? Or is he following the performance of David Cameron who was spirited off the stage at the 2006 Royal Show, refusing to take a single question from the press?

More CAP changes likely even before the current ones get established 

Farmers who believe the Basic Payment is secure for the next few years are likely to be disappointed. It will be chipped away, the conditions will become tougher. The sharper reduction in Basic Payment (Pillar 1) will be in favour of an adjusted Pillar 2 which will have not only further environmental incentives but also include payments for innovation and science, but no-where is this explained. The ministers, and us journos, were shown a high tech dairy making maximum use of robots but, after spending €1.3million, it was losing money. Then there was a factory farm growing herbs and tomatoes under artificial lighting from Philips, which was never a project that would fill supermarket shelves. Lastly there was a precision arable farmer who was working closely with Bayer. 

Do these farms point the direction of farm innovation?  Are they projects which will attract EU subsidy? Will pillar 2 have grant payments for selected high tech improvements? 

These official farm tours contrasted sharply with farm visits I made after other media went home. Here were farmers that are innovative in a practical way. They focussed on feeding with conventional mixer wagons measuring the value of all ingredients; good ventilation with adjustable curtains; clean water with innovative troughs; quality bedding; good foot management.  Their silage system is simple and low cost. 

I came away with a quiver-full of innovations, not only for dairy but also some useful tips and ideas for arable as well. It was, furthermore, interesting to experience the attitude and stance of an EU Commissioner when on duty and faced with an audience who want to ask probing questions. The Commissioner is an unelected appointee for a term of five years that started in 2014. 

Innovation but no profit from this Dutch €1.3 million set-up. Is this the innovation which Commissioner Hogan is wanting to promote?

Practical Farm Ideas, now in its 25th year, is published quarterly. It carries no advertising and remains totally independent of government or other organisations. Issues focus on cost-cutting ideas devised by farmers in their workshops
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Friday, May 06, 2016

Attention:  all practical farmers

Practical Farm Ideas reaches 25 years, and it's a real feeling of achievement. 

Those years have not been without incident, yet the publication never missed a deadline, has always been the the right number of pages (44 for the first ten years or so, and then 48), has had a loyal and growing readership. It has had no subsidy or support, official or commercial, but relied entirely on the income from readers. Just like a Penguin book. Each issue has had more plaudits than critics, and more so since the start of the Soil+ cover cropping section.  

'Made it Myself remains the bulk of pages

Over the years a number of readers have said the smaller tips and ideas we put in each issue are really valuable. They'll be happy with this issue, even though, like many impressionable teenagers, I have a fascination with the huge projects, like the home-built self propelled six row potato harvester based on a pea viner which we featured in Vol 1 - 3 Autumn 1992, or, later on, a self propelled Hesston baler.  

Ifor Williams jack: A puncture on the trailer can wreck the day. If you have a functioning spare, do you have a jack - and the spanner - to fix on the roadside? So often it's a equation of leaving it on the roadside, or calling out the tyre fitters. So a standard scissor jack from a large car modified to fit an Ifor Williams chassis makes a lot of sense. It's small, can be stowed under the trailer floor or in the truck. Making it fit the trailer is not too difficult - the pictures provide a design detail that works.

Made it Myself pages from Practical Farm Ideas Vol 25 issue 1
Trailed road brush gets front mounted: Mud on roads is a constant problem for farmers, and motorists. This trailed, ground wheel driven brush worked well, but tied up a tractor when there wasn't one spare. Modifying it to go on the front of a handler, and remaining wheel driven, has meant cleaner roads around the Kent lanes where the job was done. He bought the trailed brush for £150 in a sale. Nobody wants ground drive today, preferring hydraulic and small caster wheels - which puncture. 

Need a 60mm socket? Then make one! Fixing his power harrow meant undoing the 60mm bolts which go up through each rotor, and there was nothing like a 60mm socket in the tool kit. Using a scrap bolt as a form he fashioned some heated steel plate around the hex and welded it together. Having removed the form he welded a plate on the top with a nut that fitted a socket in the toolkit. The job worked. I thought of wheel hub dustups, the big nut in the Zetor oil filter that gets undone with a chisel, and there are many more. 

The EU debate:  a useful trip to Brussels as part of a select agri journalist group from across the EU was memorable.  We were there just before their airport was bombed, and there was high security already in place. We saw all three sections, the commission which introduces ideas for new initiatives as well as laws, the council which considers them in greater depth and involves all members, and the parliament where the issues are debated. UK farmers are wanting out, according to a Farmers Weekly survey. There's a lot which is wrong, sure, but the UK also seems to want to keep its distance, which is not a good approach in any club or society. We could, I am certain, have greater influence if we participated a bit more, in the areas where we are active. It was good to get a page on the visit in this issue of PFI. 

Finally, for all who need a new pair of workbooks, there a competition with three winners each who will get a pair of Dr Martens work boots. I tried a pair in the shop, and they make the ones I've been using for years feel very uncomfortable. So have a go - details are on the back page.


Practical Farm Ideas Vol 25 issue 1         Soil+ cover Cropping InternationalSubscribe to Practical Farm Ideas (£16.50/year)          Email the editor

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Zero-till becomes the norm worldwide

This low-cost, environment friendly farm method fits the bill

Farmers across the globe are parking up their big machinery and moving to a system that gets nature to cultivate their soil for them. Instead of steel and diesel they use worms and biology to do the work for them. They save a huge amount of fuel and other costs and get yields which are equal to those they were getting before. Unfortunately the UK farming establishment remains wedded to fighting nature with chemicals and steel. 

This USDA graph shows just how far no-till has progressed in the USA

Over the past four years I have reported on dozens of farmers who have made the change to zero-till. They include people farming 4,000 acres as well as 100, people with heavy land in Essex and Scotland, on Cotswold brash, in wet West Wales and dry Kent and Essex. One 4,000ac contributor saves enough in diesel alone to buy a new Range Rover each year and is getting better yields than ever. He'd very much like a better price for his wheat, but can still make a margin on what he's being paid. 

Maryland and Delaware largely drain into Chesapeake Bay, which some years ago was a soup of farm pollution. State and federal incentives have resulted in half the acreage in these states now under no-till and the water quality in the bay is improving as a result. 

It's regrettable that so little has been done to help UK farmers learn about this exciting agri development which is now is used on 154 million hectares across the globe.

    Virtually all the info about zero-till and soil conservation is coming from farmers - there's very little from agri colleges, little from the media, which depends on advertising from machinery.

Soil management

"Editorial has included articles on soil management for the past three years in a section called Soil+ Cover Cropping International," explains Mike, "and in this issue the lead article is 'Start Simple with Cover Crops' and the article provides the farmer with a cropping strategy which builds soil condition at least cost."
There's another section on making and using compost on the farm, including how to build your own compost tea machine. 
Looking after natural pollinators, using environmental grants to support the farm instead of cropping, and growing herbage mixtures are also featured. 

About Practical Farm Ideas magazine

Aims and Purpose
1. Promotion of low-cost farming
  -  share useful tips and ideas that save money
  -  maximise use of assets
  -  protection of farm soil, building fertility and condition, erosion control

2. Lifting farmers' business knowledge
  -  financial - budgets, performance
  -  forecasting, measuring and controlling risk
  -  legal - company structure, succession

The only farming magazine that focusses on methods and innovations devised by farmers. 
No advertising, no bias - truly independent. 

Best wishes,    Mike Donovan, editor  

PS  If you have any problems please email me   Mob:  +44  07778 877514

Subscription (£16.50) by post pay by cheque, PO or cash. 
There's a form you can download and print off and post with your cheque 
from here 

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

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