Potential of algae as sustainable energy source to be developed

STORMY weather last week, more like late autumn than early September as trees lost branches and my precious maize crop swayed dramatically in the high wind and rain- a hint of what is to come.

Our young heifers were all lined up against the hedge, sheltering against the wind and rain, and grazing dairy cows looked enviously at the fully housed freshly calved cows, cudding happily in their cubicles.

Animal welfare pressure groups conveniently forget (or more likely have no idea) about weather and conditions, when using simple slogans to condemn, when the issues are rather more complex.

We need some better weather in order to harvest the maize, and if it improves, we could be harvesting at Tillington this week.

Milford and Ripley are still a week or two away, and need sunshine to bring them on. Cobs are a good size and full, the plants healthy and green.

We have a fourth cut of grass to cut as well when the weather improves, which will be ensiled for the bio-digester.

Otherwise, we are probably on the last grazing round and the cows will be housed at the end of the month or early October, depending on weather and conditions.

An Indian summer has been earned with such a wet July and August, but will it materialise?

n The Dairy Event took place in Birmingham last week, packed with exhibitors (the number of people who depend on the industry never fails to amaze me), and well attended.

The mood was upbeat, which I expected following announcements of milk price increases over the last two weeks (always timed to coincide with the Dairy Event), and more importantly, a feeling that things are about to change at long last in the industry.

It seems that there is more willingness for processors and Co-ops to work with dairy farmers, and that they at last admit, reluctantly that things must change.

The Minister Jim Paice opened the event, stating that he has been wrestling with the sector’s massive underperformance since coming to power, and made it clear that it is a personal mission to assist in putting things right.

He quite rightly insisted that the industry needs to work more closely together, and that contracts are at the heart of the problem, where farmers are tied in for 12 months with no price guarantees or negotiating power.

This column has highlighted this problem for many years, and I am pleased that at long last, it is universally understood that this aspect of dairy farming must change.

The long notice periods are good for stability and good relations, providing there is a price guarantee or a negotiating position for farmers with a get-out if those negotiations fail.

As we turn our focus on exports and world markets, the exclusivity of contracts needs to change. Farmers should not be obliged to sell every litre produced to the same buyer if there are opportunities elsewhere.

Of course commodity prices go down as well as up, but our market in the UK has been disconnected for some time, with farmers missing out once again over the last year, with EU average prices around 4p per litre ahead of the UK, with world markets at times more than that.

As exciting developments take place and larger farms become more prominent in the next few years, the opportunity to sell milk to more than one buyer will be essential.

Kite Consulting, one of the largest group in our industry are predicting that almost 40 per cent of dairy farmers will leave the industry over the next 10 years.

This will be the final part of the restructuring of our industry, leaving far fewer, much larger dairy farms producing at least the same if not more milk than currently produced in this country.

What happens to production in the meantime, and whether it all works in the long run depends on an industry which is still struggling to mentally cast off the remaining chains of the old Milk Marketing Board, which served the industry well for 60 years, but in reality divorced both the farmer and far worse, the processor from the market.

There are still a few around in influential positions who worked for the MMB and continue to resist change. They must go if we are to succeed.

Farmer Co-op First Milk have made significant moves to lead the way in providing access to world markets through their new contracts.

One is a strategic alliance with European dairy products suppliers Eilers and Wheeler to export cheese and butter. The other a joint venture with the New Zealand Co-op Fronterra, to produce and market premium quality whey.

Other European players are taking a real interest in the UK currently, and some exciting developments are being considered.

n The NFU has been surprised at Asda’s misleading labeling of beef, where meat sourced from Uruguay is labeled as ‘Hereford Beef’. The label describes the product as ‘Butcher’s Selection at Asda – Hereford Prime Beef Sirloin Steak’.

The label shows the meat as coming from a UK packaging plant (apparently near Doncaster), but in tiny print it shows that it was slaughtered and cut in Uruguay.

The label is technically legal, which shows the inadequacy of labelling as many shoppers would not realise that this was imported meat, and that Asda are referring to the breed ‘Hereford’ and not the place.

The NFU is unhappy with the inadequacy of the voluntary British Retail Consortium code on ‘Principles on Country of Origin Information’ and threatens to report Asda to Trading Standards. Asda has indicated that it will change the labelling, to ensure that consumers are not misled.

n A major new initiative to bring together experts from across Europe to develop the potential of algae as a source of sustainable energy was announced last week.

The principal aim of the £12.3m project is to understand to what extent both micro and macroalgae could be grown and used for fuel and energy in North West Europe.

Algae is of course very fast growing in the right conditions, and causes huge problems across the globe where it is not wanted, but it can be a source of bio-diesel and ethanol, yielding up to 30 times more energy per acre than a crop of soya-bean according to American scientists.

An exciting project for the future, as oil companies are already involved. Maybe we will be ‘algae farming’ at Crouchlands in the future, using our heat from the bio-plant to grow algae ponds!

More surprising and far-fetched than all this is the startling discovery and new opinion from those that want to rule your life - the potato is good for you!

Yes, the humble potato, much maligned for decades, is now found to lower blood pressure. Looking at the statistics, I see that, yes, potato sales are up in the supermarkets. is this due to the startling discovery that the humble spud does not after all blow you up like a balloon?

Er, no. It seems that despite the tough economic climate, Prepared potato products are flying off the shelves.

Sales of mashed potatoes, new potatoes with herbs and butter are up 9 per cent, as shoppers switch away from ‘conventional – unprepared products’.

Me? I dig mine out of the soil, which is very old hat.