Landlines by Halidon

A ploughman was once asked by a visitor from town how he managed to keep his furrows so straight. “Well,” he said, “I think up a straight line, then I plough it.”

That answer, a reliance on eyesight and experience that would also have applied to most other machinery operations at the time such as fertiliser spreading, spraying, drilling and combining, was given more than 40 years ago.

But the way machinery technology and systems have changed since then make it seem even longer. Looking at some of the equipment now used in arable farming, the stuff we used in the 1960s and 1970s seems more Victorian than mid-20th century.

That thought occurred to me, not for the first time, when seeing a couple of the giant tracked tractors, 400 horsepower and upwards, in use on big arable operations in the Borders.

It was reinforced, soon after listening to William Grimsdale talk about the 4,000 acres he and his sons contract-manage from their Mountfair, Berwickshire, home farm, by reading an article about Colin and Jill McGregor’s contract-managing 7,400 acres from their Coldstream Mains base.

And the thought was rammed home by a record number of farmers and contractors attending the recent Precision Farming event in Peterborough, a cornucopia of technology – or, as some of us might say, gadgets – like those used by Mr Grimsdale and Mr McGregor and, of course, a steadily increasing number of others.

Auto-steering, for example. No need to think up a straight line, or set out poles, or select landmarks to steer by, the driver can simply set the gadget and relax. Not exactly, of course, but precision driving is easier than it used to be.

Technology to map yields, soils and nutrients are used to try and get as even as possible crop development for best results from variable applications of fertilisers and sprays, including plant growth regulators. Variable sowing rates for seed are also possible.

The technology is partly driven by world developments in every type of electronic technology, including computers and mobile phones, and partly – some might say largely – by the need to make full use of all inputs as the cost of fertilisers and chemicals rises remorselessly.

Farmers, like 95 per cent of the population, love their mobile phones so no surprise that the use of general apps – applications? – is increasing rapidly. Smart phone apps can be used for immediate in-field information.

Apps can also be applied to on-tractor electronics and, as the owner of a very basic mobile with no ability to do anything beyond make or receive calls or texts, I’m sure I should have been impressed by the spiel from one apps salesman reported from the Precision Farming event: “The display unit can be upgraded to work as a full-scale ISOBUS terminal to enable task management for planning, documentation and communication … A light bar, terrain compensation and remote camera feed can be added.”

After re-reading a couple of times, I think he means it would be a useful application for a tractor driver to have on a terminal in the cab.

I don’t knock progress. I’m all for it. I just have trouble understanding it. I’m working on that.

Cost might seem a problem. But as one farmer pointed out, compared with the cost of other inputs, £1 to £3 per tonne for technology to improve crop production must be worthwhile as long as it is reliable.

December census results for Scotland are a mixed bag. The beef breeding herd continued to decline, down almost 7,000 cows on the year at just over 460,000, and the national dairy herd dropped by almost 3,000 to just over 179,000. Breeding ewe numbers were down more than 53,000 at about 2.7million. Pig and poultry numbers were also down.

Although not down by as much as some predicted, the drop in sheep and cattle numbers surprised me after a 2011 of good returns for beef and lamb and better prices for milk. Instead, slow beef and sheep decline continues, partly because subsidies no longer depend on the number of animals on a farm.

Pig production has probably been hardest-hit by the increase in the price of grain used for feed, concentrating even further Scottish production into a handful of large-scale operators.

Weather last autumn was responsible for a difference between winter wheat and oilseed rape statistics in England and Scotland. Relatively good and dry conditions in England saw a three per cent increase in the winter wheat area, to 4.6million acres, and oilseed rape up six per cent to 1.73million acres.

In Scotland, a wetter autumn saw the wheat area slump by more than 13 per cent to 241,000 acres and oilseed rape area fell by more than three per cent to 87,000 acres.

The knock-on effect of that drop in autumn-sown area in Scotland will almost certainly be an increase in the area of spring barley now being sown.

If the weather continues as it has been for most of March so far that sowing, even on the heaviest land, could be completed earlier than expected. But I’ve given up forecasting.