Agriculture in this country uses only one per cent of our water

WE escaped the weather which battered the north of the country last week, and we are generally experiencing good weather for the time of year in the South-East.

We had the first really hard frost on Saturday morning, but nothing too serious; just a sharp reminder that this is winter and to be prepared.

This week is set to be wet, windy and pretty rough; it just depends where the worst of the weather goes.

All the animals are very comfortable in their winter accommodation, looking out on the frosty landscape.

The dairy cows are performing quite well, and food intake is higher than I have seen before, which is partly due to our cows being rather bigger these days.

Milk quality is very good, and (touching wood) its a few months now since we had any problems with displaced abomasums - a welcome relief.

As a dairy farmer, I was disappointed by the European outcome of milk contracts last week.

It had been hoped that Europe would come out in favour of strong milk contracts, following the work we had done in highlighting the issue over the last three years.

The fact that much of Europe’s dairy industry is made up of very large farmer owned co-operatives was the main reason for the failure; Co-op’s being owned by farmers of course does make a difference, especially when they are well established, very well resourced and dominant in so many European markets.

In this country it is very different. The majority of milk is sold to PLCs, or a European owned Co-op. which means the thinking is either short term to suit shareholders, or to benefit the owners of a foreign Co-op.

I have no problem with that, but safeguards need to be put in to protect British farmers, whose own Co-op’s are small and vulnerable.

We now need to rely on a voluntary contract which is being drawn up by Dairy UK on behalf of the processors and the NFU on behalf of farmers. I hope that the completely one sided contract on offer currently, which insists that every litre produced on the farm is sold to the milk buyer, that the milk buyer will then decide the price from month to month and impose that price, and to cap it all a 12 month notice period (in most cases) being required by the farmer in order to leave.

We are weak sellers of a perishable commodity as it is and we don’t need to be under this sort of suicidal contract to boot!

Last week the Government were criticised by poultry farmers for failing to put in place a ban on illegally produced eggs coming into the country.

Jim Paice the Agriculture Minister was on the back foot when questioned about the possibility of illegally produced eggs in battery units abroad entering the country.

He admitted that they could come in, but said that infra-red techniques show the wire marks on the egg, and they can be detected.

However, if that happens, although they are refused access to the shell egg market, they are processed, and the only safeguard against their use in our food being the promise of leading companies not to use them. Many other companies, smaller and less visible, have not given such guarantees.

Many of the companies producing cakes, pizzas, and other products in an extremely competitive market where every penny counts, who import liquid and powder egg currently, are very likely to be using eggs produced in countries where most, but not all the poultry farmers comply.

In some cases it is very difficult for them not to. The EU has really let down those who invested heavily and have met the January deadline for compliance with the new welfare for laying hen’s directive.

It will not be easy for any of us to take the EU welfare officials seriously again, having seen it fail to police or even bring real pressure to bear on those who have not complied; or just ignored its rules.

Jim Paice is doing his best, but there is very little he can do as Brussels is actively discouraging member states from taking tough action against those who do not comply; hugely frustrating.

Some good news on climate change is always welcome, as it is usually a stick to beat us over the head.

A report by the Met Office last week looking at climate change projections for 24 countries, claims that the UK will benefit from slightly warmer climate, enabling us to grow soybean and sunflowers in this country.

With temperatures rising by 2-3 degrees, the south of the country could suffer water shortages, although rainfall on average over the country would rise.

Water is going to be an increasingly important subject, and I gave evidence in the House of Lords last month, assisting in their quest to understand the needs of agriculture and to better shape regulation.

Agriculture in this country uses only one per cent of water consumed, and farmers have invested heavily on water bore-holes and reservoirs.

It is essential that these reservoirs are allowed to be filled in the winter, otherwise investment in this area will cease.

New technology has also been brought into operation, minimising the use of water in growing crops.

Other countries such as Spain are very different, the figures I have seen show that agriculture uses as much as 60 per cent of water in these hotter countries, making sustainability much more questionable.

Staying in the optimistic frame of mind, Rothamstead (research institute) has launched its 20:20 wheat project, which aims to provide the knowledge and techniques to lift wheat yields to 20 tonnes per hectare in the next 20 years.

The current average wheat yields in the UK are 8.4t per Ha, where as the world average is much lower at 2.8t per Ha.

The challenge of more than doubling yields in the next 20 years is not to be under estimated, but researchers are optimistic.

To reach 20t per hectare, a 10 per cent increase in light conversion efficiency would be needed by the wheat plant; breeding techniques involving germplasm crossing and optimization of photosynthetic mechanisms could deliver this in time.

It represents an annual increase in yield of 2.5 per cent each year for 20 years.

The most stupid pre Christmas announcement is that Brussels wants our retail fridges to be colder.

The European Commission wants to reduce the chiller temperatures in retail stores and suppliers down to two degrees Celsius, which would cost around £100 million in additional costs at a time when we are all attempting to save energy and money.

New rules being drawn up would require all chilled foods in store, distribution centres and delivery trucks, ramping up energy costs by 20 per cent, which would do nothing for food safety or quality.

It would however contribute greatly to greenhouse gas emissions, and our carbon footprint.

The experience of shopping in the aisles, which are already cold enough as it is, and extra time for food to become edible after purchase - does nothing for the consumer either.

Gwyn Jones