Food needs to be valued and properly priced on the farm

Another difficult week with heavy rain at night adding to the misery, as the ground is now very wet and ploughing matches in Sussex, Hampshire and Berkshire are cancelled.

We have a few young heifers grazing at Plaistow, but I don’t know if they can stay out much longer, which is a pity given that we have grass everywhere.

We do have sheep here as well, grazing superb (but wet) silage aftermaths. At Tillington everything is just fine on the sand, and bulling heifers are enjoying the grass which is plentiful.

It could be worse of course; a lot worse. It was 25 years ago last week that the great storm of 1987 struck the South East with unbelievable ferocity. Trees, in leaf, were blown down in huge swathes across the country; roads blocked everywhere, huge chain-saw sales, followed by many nasty accidents in inexperienced hands.

We were without mains electricity for many days, relying on the farm generator to milk the cows, cool the milk and provide lighting; with an extension lead to our house!

A neighbouring farm had no generator and wanted to walk his cows up the road and milk them in our parlour; I hastily found him a generator, which saved us both a huge amount of bother.

l We did harvest about 100 acres of bio-gas maize up at Ripley, but a really heavy shower soaked the ground and although the forager and trailers were travelling with no marks on the fields, we were in trouble as we reversed trailers along the same tracks to tip.

We are putting the maize in ‘Ag-Bags’ this year; long plastic tubes, which are 10 feet in diameter and anything from 90 metres (which is what we are doing) to 200 metres long; packed by a large powered packing machine.

The trailers reverse up to the machine and tip their loads, but at each bag takes around 350 tonnes, the trailers need firm ground to reverse along the same tracks to the machine, and we found them sinking deeper and deeper in the soil as we filled the bag.

Not all the maize is fully fit to harvest, and by delaying things for a week or so, we might finish the job if and when conditions improve.

The ‘Ag-Bag’ system is not cheap, but it does guarantee that the silage will be without waste or spoilage, as the perfect seal ensures a very good fermentation.

We were experiencing wastage with our field clamps, especially when loading trailers to bring it home in the winter.

Past experience with Ag-Bags has been good; I self-fed cattle using a grass-silage Ag-Bag many years ago, and there was very little waste.

We drilled the maize at Ripley at the end of April and it looks as if that was a better decision than the dairy cow maize which we drilled deep in the first week of April as we worried about the dry soil and lack of moisture! Do you remember the worry about a drought at the end of March?

l We spent an entertaining three hours on Saturday night unblocking drains! Not exactly my idea of fun, especially in the pouring rain.

George was milking in the afternoon, and rang me to say that water was backing up in the milking parlour, and the rubber flooring installed for his comfort was floating around and walking on it was difficult.

The Bio-Plant had a blocked drain of their own, which had been giving them problems for several days which meant that they could not pump our slurry reception pit out, this then started backing up our drains, about 50 metres long; the water used during milking is considerable and filled the drains, flooding the parlour.

It was 9pm by the time we could get the pit pumped out, which left us with our blocked drains where settlement had occurred, very deep manhole covers and some rather cheap drain-rods.

After lifting the rubber flooring in the parlour, trying to get the rods down deep pits (we have three in this line) which makes it a sharp angle, we eventually, three hours later cleared and flushed out the drains.

It is so difficult to find the drain in a deep manhole which is full of filthy water, especially at night, as the lights cast shadows and reflects on the water. Extra effort will be made to make sure this does not happen again.

l The maize silage has done the trick, as our milk has increased by over two litres per cow since we started feeding it two weeks ago.

This is quite a relief as we were falling behind target and we have lost quite a lot of production since running out of maize over two months ago.

We shall have to ration it very carefully given that we only have half a crop this year; I have not had it analysed yet, but the cows are telling me that it is good quality.

It would have been even better quality if we had got all the cobs into the harvester; the short plant placing many of the cobs too low for the table to harvest, slipping underneath or knocked off the stem.

l UK milk production is still falling and the first two weeks of October delivered 2 million litres a day less milk than this time last year; that is 1.5 litres a day lower than the last three year average which have been very poor.

I can’t see this recovering as feed is so expensive, silages are poor in quality overall, and the maize crop up and down the country has been a disaster.

Processors undermined confidence and angered dairy farmers with the huge cuts this spring and more threatened in the autumn which were reversed by the SOS protest.

Short-sighted processors are now unable to fill factories and are struggling to get enough milk, which causes inefficiencies in their operations and causes them further angst.

World prices are rising following the slowdown in milk production both in the EU and the USA, which are both affected by high grain prices; the Southern Hemisphere production is increasing with their cheaper grass based systems peaking (it is spring in NZ Australia) above this time last year.

The USA is beginning to recover, and EU production is forecasted to grow by just over 1% next year and in 2014. I expect the weather will have a say in that, and we all hope that 2012 will not be repeated again for a very long time.

Looking at some figures recently, it is astonishing to see that between 2003 and 2011 we lost 35% of our dairy farmers and 20% of our dairy cows, despite over 31,000 imported animals last year alone, most of which came in from Holland, Northern Ireland, France and Germany.

One expects industry

‘re-structuring’ as the detached commentators call it, but this is much more than that; this is turning an industry on its head and there are real consequences to not only people’s lives, but to the rural economy, the appearance of the countryside and to the supply of fresh British dairy products.

With a super climate (but not in 2012!), a bigger and better farm structure, competitive farmers in European terms, and over 60 million people to feed on this small island; one could be forgiven for thinking that we should be doing well. We are not; indeed we are producing less and less, with our annual ‘EU Quota’ an irrelevance for many years as we see other countries paying ‘super-levy’ for exceeding theirs year on year.

Something needs to change in this country so that food is valued and properly priced at the farm gate, otherwise we will continue to produce less and less.

Gwyn Jones