The Government seems nervous on the food versus fuel issue

SHORTS on and the first BBQ of the season, as temperatures are more like summer than early April. This is fabulous, and I can’t remember a better spring on the clay in more than thirty years, with tractors now travelling on ordinary rubber, cows and young-stock out, with grass growing strongly.

The countryside is an absolute picture, and our woods are now turning blue as the bluebells take over from the earlier display. The birds are singing their hearts out every morning, and there are some very smart (in more ways than one) pheasants about, wearing amazing colours in the bright sunshine.

I have been a bit slow in turning out the cows to be honest, because I felt that it would rain cats and dogs after such a long dry spell, but the ground is now capable of taking quite a lot of rain should the weather break, and we can relax.

We have a lot of grass in the silage fields, which are now all shut for the next four weeks to bulk up. The grazing paddocks are beginning to move, and we can be very flexible on the acreage we graze; cutting any surplus grass with the silage ground when the time comes.

We are using our dirty water to good effect on the newly drilled grass-seed, providing much needed moisture and nutrients.

Conditions are perfect, and we hope to finish all the area before the weather changes. The new seed has germinated and will soon be growing strongly, but it is a struggle in the cow paddocks, where the early spring has got the established grass off to a cracking start. I hope that grazing off the pastures, which will give the new seedlings more light, followed by an application of dirty water will see things right.

We are drilling maize! It is very early, but the soil is warm and on the south facing fields at Tillington it is time to go before we lose more moisture. We hope to be all drilled up before the end of the month, baring any hiccups.

Most of our young-stock are now out, enjoying the sunny weather and the sweet grass; conditions do not get better than this!

Travelling the country, there are many worried farmers out there, in the Cotswold’s for example, and up in Yorkshire, many are in need of rain. I suspect that it will come soon, and that we need to enjoy this weather while it lasts; it has certainly been a great help to everyone on the weald in West Sussex.

n The weather does not affect our anaerobic digester plant, and it continues to run more or less to target, with the engine now approaching 11,000 hours. It was disappointing to see that we are unlikely to benefit from the Renewable Heat Incentive, which is a government measure to promote the use of heat generated by AD plants. It seems that the RHI is to be limited to much smaller plants, and whilst that is a good thing, it makes little sense to see the heat generated by AD plants going to waste.

AD plants are not going in at the rate both government and the farming industry would like to see. A target of 1,000 AD plants on farm by 2020 looks very unlikely now.

There are three real barriers to AD - capital cost, planning, and grid connection. Planning and grid connection are largely down to luck. That is how near a grid connection you happen to be on your farm, and whether the line is capable of taking your power (otherwise you pay for the upgrade on top of the connection charge), and attitude of your local planners.

The capital cost is high, but the ability to finance that depends on the return you are likely to get, and frankly the small AD plant for 100-130 cows seems a non-starter, and is at best marginal even with RHI. 250 cow dairy farms with a bigger AD plant is of course better, but still very tight, and considering the cost of AD, it does not look that attractive. It’s only when you get to 500 cows that the figures begin to make sense, but there will not be any RHI payments, which reduces the attraction.

n Given that all these tariffs are being changed, which in itself creates uncertainty, especially following the cut in payments for solar panels, and the political debate surrounding bio-fuels and bio-mass, the uncertainty and mistrust created is holding back this country’s advance into green energy, with investors and farmers alike unwilling to commit.

Government seems nervous when it comes to the food versus fuel issue, ignoring the important fact that with AD the one thing you have plenty of is organic manures, with which marginal or unproductive land can be brought into production for energy feed stock, which does not compete with food.

The simple truth of it is though, that if food production is not profitable, farmers will do other things. Government cannot expect farmers to behave any differently to other businesses, which is all the more reason that some action is taken to make sure that supply chains work better and that a fair share of the money is passed back to the farmers and growers.

Time and time again I come across abuse of power and unreasonable demands being put on farmers and growers, and indeed processors. With energy and input costs rising steeply, it is unreasonable to pressure farmers to cut costs, when such inflationary pressures are not within their control.

n Turning to renewable and bio-plastics I am interested to see that sugar is not a ‘food’, it is defined as an ingredient, which takes the pressure off large companies such as Coca-Cola, Nestle and Unilever when it comes to producing bio-plastics; indeed used Coke bottles are fetching more than they cost new, as everyone wants to re-cycle or use re-cycled material.

Fuel from sugar is therefore not seen as directly in competition with food (unlike starch), and here there are huge opportunities to produce bio-ethanol which is cheaper than bio-diesel. Unfortunately, car warranty manufacturers won’t allow more than 10 per cent maximum ethanol inclusion rates in fuel, but the development of ‘flex-fuel’ vehicles will hopefully overcome this issue.

Following Tesco’s move into used cars, the Irish bookmaker Paddy Power is offering odds on what the retailer will attempt to sell next. Novelty bets on pets (33/1), lonely hearts (25/1), and plastic surgery (16/!), with more likely ventures attracting lower odds weddings (5/1), gas and electricity (7/4), and holidays (13/8). This is just a bit of fun according to Paddy Power, ‘But we have been taking bets for over a week now’. You read it here first.