June 19, 2008

Prices Put Fat Balances on a Diet


IF THIS column had a volume control, then my next statement should definitely be uttered pianissimo. Things are selling rather well, aren't they?

Farm gate prices for milk, meat and cereals are all showing a healthy increase on last year, on top of which the delicate rain/ sun balance has so far been just about perfect.

But before everyone starts thumbing through swimming pool brochures or loitering with intent around executive motorcar forecourts, not everything is rosy in the farming garden.

Fatter bank balances are quickly sent on a crash diet by colossal bills for feed, fertiliser and - the bane of everyone's life - fuel.

My last domestic oil bill was so astronomical that World War II- style rationing was immediately implemented.

The central heating has long since been turned off, woe betide anyone who spends more than two minutes in the shower and at least two people have to use the same bath water (for some reason, there seems to be a marked reluctance to climb in after me).

But the question is, can my draconian saving measures be put into practice on an industrial scale?

As an example, let's take two silage cuts instead of four. You don't need to be Carol Vorderman to calculate that your silage fuel costs will be halved.

However, this has to be tempered against the loss of quality of the material and subsequent effect on milk yield. Does the greater return on the milk yield from four cuts cover the cost of the extra fuel? I strongly suspect we've reached the point where it doesn't.

A long hard look needs to be taken at maize.

Already an expensive crop to grow, the hike in fuel prices has made it even more so. Though it raises milk solids - and thus the size of your milk cheque - is the premium enough to make maize viable?

Coupled with the fact that, in North Wales at any rate, fields lie redundant for six months of the year, I envisage a lot of maize being replaced by permanent pasture.

Farmers who take summer grazing 40, 50 miles and even further from home are now feeling the pinch.

This has always puzzled me. If you keep animals an hour or so from your farm, you are not going to see them every day. To me, that is rule number one of good stock husbandry.

My opinion aside, is the cost of the grazing, the fuel and the time spent sat in the vehicle, covering the return? I imagine there is a point on the road that you pass when the system's viability is called into question.

I'll throw another issue into the mix - the rapidly diminishing Single Farm Payment. Let's imagine that all fixed costs remain the same for the next few years; the shortfall in income would have to be taken up by even higher returns.

That's about as likely to happen as me being invited to a Buck House garden party.

The truth is, farmers are going to have to add fuel economics to their burgeoning portfolio of multi-tasking.

Beats getting in the bath after me, I suppose.

Sadly this is my final column for Farm & Country. Writing it has made me dozens of new friends, got me invites to countless events and gave me the inspiration to write my book.

Thanks for all your very kind comments and emails; it's been an absolute blast.

My last domestic oil bill was so astronomical that World War II- style rationing was immediately implemented

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