Thursday, November 30, 2017

Facing up to the Challenges

Facing up to the Challenges

Brexit is just one of a number of challenges facing farmers in the next few years. Farmers have the choice of listing future problems, analysing what they may mean, and then planning for the future - what ever that may bring. Or else they plan to go on pretty much as they have been and don’t see the point in planning for an uncertain future. 

Delegates at the winter conference on Nov 15 of Worcester based agricultural accountants Ballards were given a presentation by Practical Farm Ideas editor Mike Donovan who told them that a head in the sand approach is unlikely to work too well over the next few years. The signs of change are just too great.  Mike told the delegates “It is a racing certainty that Brexit will result in changes to the trading relationships in food and agri products with European countries. Of course we don’t know as yet now what these will be, and it may well be many months before anything is decided. But the chances are that farm economics will become tougher for many farmers.” 

The packed hall had farmers, and accountants, fascinated in the detail of methods to improve farm efficiency -  agricultural productivity 

He went on to point out that the Brexit trading relations with the EU are just one part of the uncertainty. Another is the direct payment subsidies which make up half of UK farmers’ income. Once out of the EU the UK farm support will be directed from London and all the signs are for a major reduction. The price of oil, together with interest rates are further major issues which will impact all farmers, whatever their enterprise or efficiency.
Mike was explaining the contents of this slide - all practical ideas which make farm work easier, cheaper, safer

Drill down and there are other additional challenges: farmers will face continuing controls over inputs: products like neonics and glyphosate, recently given a five year reprieve - a subject in itself - are both under a microscope which is being operated by the public and politicians with limited knowledge and others, like antibiotics and other products may well be more closely controlled. Livestock regulations are very likely to change. Housing cattle and access to outside loafing areas, ducks being given access to water for swimming and splashing… it’s a dense and growing minefield which the farmer will have to negotiate. 

What should farmers be doing now, in this time of uncertainty?

Advisors all tell farmers they need to become more efficient. What does this mean in practice?  For decades farmers have been led to think efficiency means investment, new machinery - a new tractor and plough which gets more work done in the hour.  Farmers with ambitions and helpful bankers will go ahead and make sure their farming is bang up to date. Others will resist the lure of efficiency and be happy with the way they are doing things at present.

Mike went on to explain that farmers have improved efficiency without spending a fortune. His slides showed a great many successful adaptations and home made machines and implements. 

* a cheap pick-up fitted with 650mm tyres that run at 9ps. It is a great substitute for the ATV with the slug pelleter and is used for many jobs.  

* an in-field calving box which makes a better job calving a 250 cow suckler herd outside. Making it easier to secure the cow means reduced calf, and cow, losses. 

* cluster flushing done with a system that was home built ten years ago has massively reduced mastitis - one slide shows the herd’s annual NMR summary with zero mastitis cases in a 140 cow herd. It cost £2k to make. 

* using worn-out Astro-Turf for cow tracks.

* installing vent pipes in grain is like putting in pedestals into a full grain store

* converting an old dumper truck to a self propelled hoe for sugar beet - and many other possible applications

* a hitch that fits the front of the Manitou handler

* converting an old grain trailer into a batch crop dryer

* security locks for a Land Rover Defender with Ifor Williams canopy

* the Farm Ideas workshop miracle - using candle wax as a releasing fluid. Heat and apply a candle and the wax finds it’s way between the rusted parts

* making a removable link box for your ATV

* silage is covered by tyre mats made by bolting 6 x 3 rows of tyres together

* how to wash a field water trough. Keep them really clean and give the cattle uncomtaminated water

Farming with biology. 

Soil loss pictures. Cover crops; direct drilling; home built direct drill based on Bomford cultivator; crimper roller

Farm Safety needs a total re-think. 

We now work iin the most dangerous industry there is. 30-40 people killed annually; 15,000 have injuries that require a hospital; Pictures show a  disabled young farmer’s wheelchair ramp to get into tractor; a home designed power step to lift a disabled driver into cab. Positive pictures: a handler for dual wheels that means they get used when they are needed; orange beacon on an ATV; garden designed into a child’s play area; trailer safety brake; front mirror looks down the road; ATV link box stops flip over. 

Today’s interest rates allow farmers with the right set-up access to capital. Last week I met a farmer who that day had fixed a £1.5million loan fixed for 12 years at 2.5%. It sounds like cheap money - yet the interest is going to cost nearly £40k a year, so he’s looking for a return of £75k. That’s not going to come from replacing new kit for old.       

What can Mr Average Farmer do? 

Improving the outcome of tasks - which can often be achieved with some simple adjustments to procedure and machinery. Many advisors fail to recognise this. They front up innovations such as the new mini robots before they have been used commercially, and with no economics and figures attached to them. Professors and others compare them with robotic milking parlours without saying anything about the huge differences. The only thing they share is the word robot. 

The advice is to search out and apply great simple ideas. The funds at risk are incredibly small. Mike mentions the effects of aerating grassland, using the one he built in 1988. A 30% increase in grass production by year 4 from a machine which cost £250 to make (say £1,000 today) and costs no more to tow around than a roller is a no-brainer as they say. Yet very few farmers have taken the initiative and made one for themselves. And that’s the problem - 90 per cent of farmers will only make changes when they see everyone else doing it. The simpler the idea, the longer it takes to get used. 

The presentation went well, and the email in thanks 

Hi Mike

Thank you so much for coming last night. It was great to meet you and the feedback on the talks has been fantastic. I hope you got back safe last night.

I will have a check with the venue regarding the box of cards and let you know.
In the meantime, I would really like to keep in touch and hopefully meet up again.

Thanks once again for a fun and informative talk.
Best Wishes

Steven Jones BSc (Hons)
Business Development Director
Ballard Dale Syree Watson LLP
Tel:      +44 (0) 1905 794504
Fax:     +44 (0) 1905 795281