The last 18 months has seen such a fluctuation in both input costs and crop values that it appears also impossible to plan ahead at the moment with any degree of certainly. That’s particularly true if your main driver is farm gate price for crop sales. Whilst you can lock in a percentage of crop sales to Futures prices the majority of the crop will remain exposed to external market influences given its still growing in the field and the risks associated with getting it safely in the barn. Currently oilseed rape prices have tumbled, wheat recently found new lows, and whilst the spring barley is going in the ground, there is at least some optimism here that malting premiums may well repeat last year’s level given the Scotland’s relatively tight supply and demand projections for 2023-24. There are of course, and indeed should be, many more drivers for decision making when it comes to crop rotations beyond taking a view on anticipated future market prices. These decisions should reflect drawing on all the factors over which you have control. The right cropping choices brings with it the ability to optimise on these factors; spreading risk, bring in cultural control measures, optimising input costs, tailoring power and labour requirements and improving timeliness.
At a time when the most recent statistics show profitability in the cereal and mixed farm business sector increased compared to previous years (Scottish Farms Business Income 2021/22. Table 1), one might take comfort from the figures however there remains, quite rightly, concerns looking ahead as to its likely decline again.
DEFRA recently published its 2023-23 Farm Business Income forecast for England in February this year (Table 2) to better understand the more recent business profitability performance compared to 2021-22. A falloff in profitability is evident more so in the livestock sector and permeates through to the mixed farm units. Cereal farms are anticipated, however, to hold at 2021-22 levels, due in part to the earlier higher grain prices still represented in the accounts.
There is of course a reason why government is currently directly funding farmers to gain a better understanding of their soils, its carbon content, nutrient status and overall farm greenhouse emissions. Improved efficiency and Integrated Pest Management is being targeted and linked to that and going forward, ongoing sustainability. Cropping rotations play their part here; crop diversity can be key to optimising savings on inputs and often we talk of a ‘rotations’ profitability over the 5/6/7/8 years of the rotations duration, rather than a particular ‘crop’ contribution. Whilst climate here restricts the breadth of crop choice more so than elsewhere in the UK, break crops of grass, oilseed rape, pulses, potatoes and vegetables should be considered on merit alongside the mainstay contributions from cereals. Spring cropping choices and environmental schemes also open the window to the inclusion of catch and cover cropping within the rotation.
An article on the FAS website on this topic concluded:
‘’To implement a successful rotation, a balance of different crops should be chosen, with the main focus being on breaking the disease and pest cycle. A successful rotation should reduce the reliance on sprays to reduce weeds, with a mixture of winter, spring and break crops breaking up the weed seed bank. There should always be a plan B drawn up, so the unexpected happens then there is a plan ready to implement. You should evaluate the local markets and contracts to see what crops are best suited for your farm. You should budget for different rotation scenarios in case of changes to weather or market demand.’’
NB: financial data relates to year of publication.
Consider Integrated Pest Management
Diverse rotations are also a key strategy in integrated pest management plans, and a beneficial way to reduce pest, weed and disease burdens with the added benefit of reducing reliance on pesticides. Updating plans annually is integrated into farm quality assurance audits – over 90% of Scotland’s arable crops are covered by the Scottish Quality Crops assurance scheme. The IPM planning tool is hosted on the website for the Plant Health Centre on the link below:
IPM is a whole farm approach to pest management that maximises productivity whilst minimising negative impacts on the environment. It needs to be flexible and individual businesses can take many different but totally appropriate approaches to adopting IPM practices.
The Scottish IPM Assessment Plan has been designed to be straight-forward and easy to complete on an annual basis. The aim is for it to be a simple tool to baseline your practices and track the impact of changes. There are planning tools tailored to farms that grow mainly arable crops, mainly grass crops or mainly horticultural crops so that the most appropriate practices for these scenarios can be best represented.
As well as resilient crop rotations, various other effective options count towards Integrated Pest Management planning, and also help with business efficiency. A key action is to take advantage of crop monitoring and surveillance information that lets you tailor inputs to the actual needs of the crops. This will be a mix of information you or your agronomist gathers from walking crops but it can also include information from monitoring and surveillance programmes such as the Scottish adopt-a-crop information and local comments on the links below:
BASIS and NRoSO members can claim CPD points on completion of an IPM plan by completing the section at the end of the questions to receive CPD points. For further details see https://www.basis-reg.co.uk/privacy-policy and https://www.nroso.org.uk/privacypolicy.aspx
Over the coming months before the autumn it’s a worthwhile exercise reviewing your current rotation, identifying any weaknesses and constraints it imposes. Stress test each crops sensitivity to price and yield in view of historic performance and create a ‘best guess’ gross margin for each crop that may have a place in a future rotational structure. With this financial information to hand you can then sequence the cropping to optimise variable cost spend and scrutinise the time, equipment and resource savings that could arise from doing things differently.
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