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,
seem to think otherwise.

So while Minister Owen Paterson excites over farming opportunities, columnist David Richardson provides a gloomy forecast of rising costs and declining prices  for farm products. So who is right? 

I say they both are, and it's not simply my diplomatic nature getting the upper hand over reason. David Richardson is quite correct to underline the decline in farm gate prices of many commodities and subsidies, and also the rising costs of some inputs. Owen Paterson is similarly not lying when he talks about opportunities resulting from increasing world demand, the use of new technology, which from his speeches seems the same as the use of GM to him. It's a question of time span and the appetite for change.

How peculiar it is that farmer Richardson looks at the prospects over the short term while his business is one that spans decades if not generations, and yet the politician Paterson looks at the longer term, while his position in power may be terminated in less than 12 months!   

Hot opportunities

Beyond Borlaug's Green Revolution

Farming, globally, is on the cusp of change. World agriculture was, for the past 50 years, shaped by the Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug, whose 'green revolution' and the extensive use of nitrogenous fertilisers provided a huge increase in world food production. His Nobel lecture of Dec 11, 1970 graphically describes the transformation of world agriculture through the use of superior seed genetics, fertilisers and machinery. Borlaug's science and, as importantly his influence in world organisations, governments and global companies, increased world food production, and his influence continues to be huge. On Oct 16 2014 the World Food Prize will be presented to Borlaug's colleague Dr Sanjaya Rajaram who has continued his work in plant breeding, in particular the crossing of winter and spring wheat varieties which has led to higher yielding, more tolerant wheat crops which are now grown over 143 million acres in 51 countries.  

Despite these developments, today farmers in the principal crop growing areas of the world are facing a problem - yields appear to have reached a limit, at just a time when there's a need for still greater production. Herein lies the hot opportunity for farming. For minister Owen Paterson and many others the opportunity lies in the use of GM varieties, a technique which in many ways continues the development work of Norman Borlaug himself. 

The development of soil management

Others see the need and benefit of a total change in direction. Their focus is towards the soil, how it functions, how it creates plant nutrients, and how this can be harnessed for better production. There seems every reason for the two to work together - better soils + GM - yet of the two it is the soils which are the more important. Scientists confess to knowing precious little about the functions of microbes, bacteria and other living organisms in soil, and farmers even less. It's a whole area of exciting research which has the opportunity of substantial global benefits.

Some farmers have grasped the idea of soil improvement and changed methods from a slavish use of chemistry to provide nutrients and control challenges. They have altered their farming systems to encourage the development of soils which naturally create the right environment for plant production, both harvestable crops and grass. They find themselves doing this in a scientific vacuum. Money for agricultural research has a focus on GM, while that available for biological research appears far less evident. Yet soil research holds the prospect of farming working with natural processes and improving productivity and yield. Farmers exchange knowledge, and some academic institutions, in the USA at least, are turning their attention to soil management. 

Farmers are not only getting the hang of new biological techniques, they are finding the new methods are providing better yields at lower costs. Their use of fertiliser is reduced, saving the ecologically damaging process of mining and manufacturing. Fewer pesticides has environmental benefits which extend to insects and pollinators, soil microbes as well as birds. Reduced field work not only means less diesel and a lower carbon footprint, but also a reduction in machinery, wearing metal, tyres and other resources. 

The concerns of the day

Under the headline 'Tremendous opportunities in farming? Not yet, there's not...' David Richardson, opinion writer of Farmers Weekly, says the upbeat mood of bankers and politicians is misplaced. He points to the hard reality of sliding prices and the evidence of its effect is shown in the forecasts from farm consultants.  Andersons citing their fictional Loam Farm which had a farming margins showing a £153/ha actual figure in 2012; £76 actual in 2013; £50 estimated in 2014 and £6 budgeted in 2015. Adding in the subsidy and the figures are £393; £319; £287; and £231. 

So why did visitors to Cereals flock around the machinery stands, as if new machinery is the passport to profit? Yes, the technology is there to be admired, and I must admit that a cultivator costing £130,000 took my eye. But why were there so many empty seats at the session on Soil organised by the Oxford Farming Conference? The session was a chance to gain knowledge, make contacts with people knowledgeable about soil and soil condition, a hot topic in farming today. The same venue ran out of standing room for the CAP session with Owen Paterson, NFU President Meurig Raymond; Robin Page the Daily Telegraph writer and Yorkshire farmer Jono Dixon which asked 'Does the Three Crop rule make sense?', 'Why should farmers compete for their share of the Pillar 2 cake?' There was little in that session for farmers to take away and implement on their own land. 

The real opportunities - 10 modern farming developments worth serious consideration

Change provides farmers with opportunities, and it involves more than buying a new tractor. Resisting change, use the same cultivation or livestock system today as was used even ten years ago on the basis that it worked last year so will work this, is a farming habit which reduces opportunity and relies on subsidy. 

Min-till, zero-till, cover cropping all reduce costs. Weed problems, including blackgrass, can be a consequence, but cultivation is not the only cause of the problem.  PFI issue 22-1;   22-2;   22-3;   22-4
Low maintenance sheep, such as the Exlana or EasyCare. A cost-driven approach to sheep breeding and management is shown to raise profits and reduce labour.  PFI Issue  22-4
Robotic milking with higher yields, less drudge, and competitive costs has come of age for the family size farm.    
RTK super accurate steering systems, coupled with sectional spray booms, field mapping and variable inputs remain affordable for only the larger farm, but provide valuable cost savings. PFI Issue 22-4
Cross breeding in dairy cows is a whole new science which is seeing dairy cows using the strengths of hybrid vigour and moving away from cattle bred for the show ring. It takes a lead from commercial sheep and beef which has been crossing for decades. 
Crop breeding. Never has there been so much information on so many varieties.
Information through farmer forums such as The Farming Forum , British Farming Forum provide more than gossip and circulate rumour. They are a source of factual information for every farmer.
Renewable energy generation is a whole new industry. Based largely on subsidy the returns can be considerable. A £750k farm AD plant we visited was making 37% return on capital as well as creating an enhanced fertiliser. PFI 22-3
Direct farm sales have increased like Topsy, almost in line with internet use, as consumers find renewed enthusiasm in finding 'real' and 'local' food
Timber and firewood demand grows in line with eco-friendly woodburning stoves, while at the other end of the business the demand for British saplings for woodland and amenity increases. 

'Made it Myself item of the week

Rabbit netting laying machine 
A tractor mounted machine which buries rabbit netting - professionally and accurately. Work rate 1000m / hr  compared with the same length taking a day with a lightweight 360 digger Issue 19-4

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

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  1. Nice post! At present, mostly people depend on agriculture field. This post is really very useful for all farmers.

  2. Many thanks Mr Mulching - something which should interest all in farming. Do pass the blog on to internet friends and others, as they might equally find it useful. The next issue of Prac Farm Ideas has some interesting related content.