landlines

It’s easy to forget – that is, I always do – that as we speculate on a likely starting date for harvest some time before the end of July in our small part of the world, combines have been working across the south and east of England for more than a week.

Results so far have been variable, unsurprising after the weather we’ve had in the past eight months – heavy snow and deep frosts followed by almost three months without much rain and then heavy rain in spells through May and June. Crops trying to establish and grow didn’t know what was hitting them.

Depending on soil types, some grain crops more or less died with early yield reports for winter barley of less than two tonnes per acre. Other winter barley reports are well above three tonnes per acre.

We could be heading for similar unwelcome differences here when combines start work. At the time of writing, when that will be is anyone’s guess, as ridiculously heavy showers continue to hit us out of blue skies and crops that seemed to be ripening rapidly a week or ten days ago have remained as they were.

Not that ripeness is necessarily a criterion for combining, as the competitive spirit that is integral to the farming psyche always becomes apparent at harvest time. Being first to start in the area can be more important, at least for the first field, than yield or quality.

A grain grower in Somerset, one of the earliest starters, proved that “first or burst” mindset to my satisfaction when he delivered his first trailer-load of winter barley to a local merchant’s store and said triumphantly: “We have only missed one year in 15 as the first delivery here.” Attaboy – and if we haven’t got a few trying hard to be like him here in the next week or two, I’d be surprised.

As the number of dairy farmers continues to decline, there are reports that the price for their milk is, at last, being increased. The law of supply and demand suggested that was bound to happen some time, but when the main buyers for any product are the big supermarkets the “laws” of economics don’t always apply.

In Scotland, the squeeze on ex-farm milk prices has seen the number of dairy farmers decline rapidly in recent years. Last year 51 quit, so far this year 16 have given up; half a century ago there were more than 7,000 dairy farms in Scotland, now there are 1,035.

But total milk production does not suffer because “bigger and fewer” applies and the average herd size of those who stick with milk production keeps rising. Average size is now 156 cows with 15 herds of more than 500, most of them high-yielding Holsteins, backed by genetic improvement programmes.

If a milk supply is there, it doesn’t concern supermarket buyers who is providing it or how many of them there are. If supply from British farms falls, they buy abroad. If the price is right they buy abroad anyway.

However, if just might be that the logistics of bringing milk from Ireland or the Continent, no matter how efficient modern ferries and the Channel Tunnel are, tips the balance slightly, long-term, in favour of those British dairy farmers still in business after several low-price years. Meantime, recent milk price increases to farmers from big players such as Wiseman are welcome.

One statistic in the recent flurry about dairy farming was that the individual production of about a third of Scotland’s 162,000 dairy cows is not recorded. In a milk world where price differentials of decimal points of a penny are vital, robot milkers, transponders, embryo transplants, genetic mapping, scientifically based rations and much else, I thought that knowing how each cow performs would be essential.

Apparently not, and I find that surprising. What I don’t find surprising is that a message for sheep farmers, that recording facts and figures is better than relying on instinct and guess work, continues to fall mainly on deaf ears.

The most recent evidence comes from a project led by Quality Meat Scotland, over four years with results from more than 4,000 lambs. It indicated clearly that the value of using a high-index ram was £11 per ewe more than using a low-index ram and £5 per ewe more than farmer’s choice rams that had been selected simply on appearance.

So using high-index rams could increase returns for a 1,000-ewe flock by, let me see, at least £5,000. But many farmers still resist trying to do that because they think others might not know a good ram on appearance only, but they certainly do and they don’t need this high-index rubbish.

They’re the ones who should go to an open day at Drinkstone, Hawick, on July 27 when the results of the work by Arnold Park and son John – winners of the Murray Trust’s Future Farmer of the Year award – show what can be achieved with sheep recording, high index rams, and embryo transfers, not to mention the family’s extensive work with new grass varieties and their interest in conservation. Believers and non-believers alike should be welcome.