Wheat yields have not increased in 10 years and need tackling

NOT bad weather for November, with some really quite nice sunny days and the temperatures are still high with the grass continuing to grow. Our heifers are still out running with the bull, and I hope they can stay out for a little while longer.

At Tillington, conditions are very good, still lovely and dry underfoot with grass available, although we are really on top of it now. Amazingly there is the odd ragwort plant struggling to put up a tiny yellow flower. It never gives up.

The cows are settled in for the winter at Crouchlands, the daily routine of milking twice a day, fresh straw bedding when they return from the milking parlour and ad-lib feed in front of them 24 hrs a day.

Not a bad life really is it? The yarded in-calf heifers are getting used to lying in cubicles, which they seem to take to very quickly. They used to be in the straw yards and the cows in cubicles, but it’s all changed this winter as we try it the other way around. It will be interesting to see how the cows perform on straw yards, we are of course very aware that whilst they offer the cows more comfort, there is always a risk of mastitis.

We will overcome this by mucking out the straw yards every three weeks or so, which will keep them fresh, and as the Anaerobic Digester is hungry for straw muck (needing around 11 tonnes a day), there is no reason not to keep the straw going in and the muck out.

I do hope that the extra comfort and effort going into all this will reap some benefits in milk production; the thinking being that if the cows are more comfortable, they will lie down more and therefore make more milk. Having said that, they seemed quite happy in cubicles, which are fitted with mattresses and bedded with re-cycled paper, so we may be disappointed.

The farm visit last week went reasonably well, although we did not get around to fixing the farm drive until Friday (three days later), which was a shame.

It was certainly all happening here when they all arrived, concrete crusher, digger, and all sorts of kit making a terrible row as I attempted to make myself heard above the racket. It probably added extra interest to discuss the alterations carried out, and I’m sure they went home happy in the knowledge that we all have our challenges!

n I attended the annual dinner of Cranleigh and South East Agricultural Society on Saturday night. The Society is celebrating its 65th anniversary, having started in 1946, and farming has certainly come full circle since then. Europe was in dire need of food, and governments set policies that would encourage farmers to produce more food in order to feed the population.

We all know the story, an amazing record of innovation and technology, which saw food supply increase at an incredible rate, culminating in surpluses during the 1970s, and concern amongst the new generation which had not experienced what went before, or the prospect of spending a third of disposable income on food.

Values changed very quickly, and environmental issues came to the fore, with concern about modern agriculture, and its effects on the countryside, the landscape and animals. Government policies changed, and farming has been adapting to the new measures and new demands from well fed consumers.

Again, just as the response to the hunger and poverty in Europe during the 1940s, government policies during the last twenty years have had a huge effect on how we produce food and farm the land, and again a huge effort has transformed the way we produce food.

We are now once again facing different challenges as we look to feed a rapidly growing population, both in this country and in the world. Government attitude is changing, and the challenge is to get it right. Wheat yields for example have not increased in 10 years, and need to be addressed. Food prices are increasing, and although retailers are doing their best to keep food inflation down whilst maintaining their profits at the expense of all suppliers and farmers, it will not last. Government can turn a blind eye to retail abuse whilst they concentrate on growth, without which inflation is disastrous, but it can’t go on for long.

n I am taking part in a debate this week ‘Who owns the Countryside?’ An interesting topic and my part is ‘Who owns animal health?’ A topical subject, which I am sure will spark vigorous debate (we havefive minutes to present and then a discussion panel), and very strong views will be held by almost everyone present I’m sure.

Farming is a dichotomous activity, we often work in isolation, taking our own decisions every day, and yet our markets and especially purchased inputs are dominated by global supply and demand.

Are we the owners of disease? Or the owners of risk? That is what I will be asking. I think that we, as farmers, should be intolerant of disease spread by irresponsible livestock purchasing and movements.

The public at large should be equally intolerant towards those who put at risk the benefits of disease free livestock by disobeying our rules at airports and ports- illegally imported foods, dogs that are allowed to foul sheep and cattle pasture in the countryside, causing real problems in parasitic infestations.

Every legislative decision which ignores animal health in favour of voter preference is an absence of responsibility and disease ‘ownership’, as we as consumers and citizens all benefit from disease free livestock. As a farmer, I am clearly and quite rightly responsible for the health and welfare of my animals, but there is for example, a clear distinction between routine day to day animal health problems and notifiable disease.

I work with my staff and with our veterinary surgeon to control disease on the farm, but in the case of Foot and Mouth disease, or ‘Bluetongue’, or bovine TB; to name but three, government is heavily involved, as it is in the national interest, explicitly accepting a share of the responsibility, and therefore ‘ownership’.

The threat of ‘Bluetongue’ disease coming into this country was a classic example of government and farmers working together, with spectacular results.

During Foot and Mouth outbreaks, government takes charge, working with industry representatives, banning livestock movements, ordering the slaughter, arranging disposal, testing and clean-up. That reduced but did not eliminate risk, which was dealt with by farmers locking themselves away on their farms with stringent bio-security measures for any visitor.

Bovine TB is very different. The government, for reasons that have nothing to do with animal health, has refused to take all the actions available to reduce the weight of infection in the countryside. This in turn has produced a negative response from farmers affected, rapid spread of disease, and dissatisfaction from Europe.

In theory, and if it works in the interest of everyone, the newly appointed ‘Animal Health and Welfare Board’, should overcome this sort of problem, as it ought to take the politics out of the equation, and be the catalyst for both government and farmers to shoulder their respective shares of ownership and responsibility. In practice, because the government has reserved final decision making powers to itself - it almost certainly will not.