The future of arable: Can we compete with £60/t?

With a push towards lower subsidies, no likely advances towards GM and foreign competition on the cards – growers in UK are likely to face increased pressure as they prepare to leave the EU.

Industry leaders speaking at the Northern Ireland Arable Conference on Thursday gave a stark warning: While it was likely Gove’s promise to clearly label British produce as local could encourage shoppers to pay more – to support high welfare standards and environmentally-sustainable food production – it was unlikely to help arable farmers.

The limitations of ‘buying local’

Martin Grantley-Smith, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) strategy director cereals and oilseeds, warned this was likely to only help the dairy and meat industries.

He said: “We can see a trend of increasing poultry consumption in the UK.

“Gove said in his speech last week the government would ensure British goods are clearly marked as British and then let the consumer decide what they would like to buy. Those are both good news if you are selling meat or milk – but it’s not such good news to us.

While the chicken might be marked as British that doesn’t mean it’s been fed British grain. So while the consumer might buy British chicken they won’t be thinking about what the chicken is fed.

Grantley-Smith said the issue would be compounded by the potential abolition of trade barriers against cheaper foreign competitors.

Cheaper competition

He said countries such as Argentina, Ukraine and Russia had substantially lower arable production costs. In Russia, he said, farmers were able to produce wheat for as little as £60/t.

“I’m not even going to ask if anyone here is anywhere near that because it would be an impossibility.

They then lose all that benefit trying to get that product to market. They then have to ship that product anything up to 2,000 miles on very poor roads trying to get that to market – but it’s only a matter of time before they solve that issue.

He explained Argentina produced much lower yields but of high-quality crops with low losses to disease, minimising the cost of production.

He said: “They go on to the farm to put down seed and then they close the gate and they don’t go back until harvest – they run the thing very very differently. Land is in abundance. And there’s very little spent on machinery. They say, “If your tractor does less than 2,000 hours a year get rid of it.”

The future of arable

In Argentina, the main farm input cost is contractor fees while on UK farms machinery is the largest cost, followed by labour.

“All my life the driver for change in the industry has been pushing for yield. Now we need to ask is that the right thing to do? Over the next few years we’ll need to ask if we should be taking the foot off the pedal and focusing on other things.”

Grantley-Smith added that he would be surprised if GM became commonplace in the UK in his lifetime, adding that the question was “ducked” at Oxford Farming Conference.

The tech revolution

Meanwhile, other speakers said it was likely major advancements in technology would become key to pushing production costs down while maintaining yields.

Iain Johnston, a crops adviser at CAFRE, explained how new advancements meant machinery manufacturers were now working on tyres that can be adjusted from the cab, with some versions – such as Fendt’s Variogrip – already on the market.

Driverless tractors could also help reduce soil compaction – by removing the cab and the steering wheel, going driverless could substantially reduce the weight of some machines.

Another way to get around this issue in the future could be through the use of small robots for weeding and seeding.

“Technology is moving on all the time – don’t be afraid to make use of new technology. You might not be the first adopter but it can help you in your business,” Johnston said.