Seasonally depressing – and I’m not talking about political confusion as we move inexorably towards a general election - it is the winter weather of course! I dislike grey, cold and wet in any combination and hope by the time this is read, that ‘spring will have sprung’ in abundance!
We completed new hedgerow planting in January – digging hundreds of holes is one thing, but every plant has to be staked, guarded and the entire sections fenced to prevent damage from marauding wildlife - rabbits, hares, deer apart from the grazing sheep.
Lambing finished here in mid-February and not a moment too soon! Three weeks of concentrated effort and 18 hour shifts meant some weary shepherds - but with the best lambing results ever, we can be very satisfied with the detail invested. The flock was scanned in early December when all pregnant ewes were colour marked and batched depending on singles, twins, triplets or quads being expected. Scanning is an essential management tool, ensures ewes are fed accurately and eases any guesswork at lambing time. We have a ‘closed flock’ which means breeding from our own stock - only buying rams occasionally to improve the genetic potential of the flock. Our best ewe lambs will be retained and the others are destined for the fat lamb trade. These may end up in the supermarkets, but apart from a few that are sold locally for the freezers – most Brightwell lamb often goes to France in carcass form, where there is a strong consumer demand for a range of sheep meat.
As I write, the next arable task is planting spring beans directly into over-wintered stubbles. The land is currently very wet and needs to dry before any progress can be made. Beans grown for human consumption – with the fall back for animal feed if quality is poor – will provide a break crop in our arable rotation giving fertility build-up and a disease break; greatly benefiting the following wheat crop.
Looking ahead – harvest 2010 will start here at the end of July or early August - depending on weather conditions during the growing season. Most of our grain is now moved directly from the farm at harvest time to a cooperative storage facility near Stonehenge. This means all grain is dried, cleaned, blended, stored and marketed from a central point providing advantages of scale, supply, guaranteed quality and logistics for buyers or exporters. With greater accountability, food health and hygiene standards apart from cost advantages from strength in cooperation – this is the way ahead for many and will undoubtedly be a concept that will expand substantially in the years to come.
That said – I miss the cut and thrust of speculating on the grain markets although any predictability of price and market movement is now almost impossible to gauge! Perhaps the greatest influence on world grain markets is investors, hedge funds, traders and speculators. Exchange rates are also critical, as is the price of crude oil which reflects the value of grain destined for ethanol production. Supply and demand hardly features in the equation - unless there is a major food crisis or global harvest shortfall.
So where does this leave us in the U.K? Much of our farming is world class and given the encouragement could produce much more from existing resources. The knowledge and experimental base that was outstanding here in the 70’s and 80’s has been seriously eroded and needs major repair if agriculture is to contribute to the growing concerns on food production. This means a balanced approach to future livestock and arable production, conservation and climate change - but cannot discount advances in technology including plant breeding techniques.
Farming will respond to any challenge.
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