SCOTTISH Agronomy held its annual technical conference recently at Huntingtower Hotel, Perth, where a line-up of industry experts made for an informative day.

With uncertain times ahead because of Brexit, the conference served as an opportunity to offer delegates best practice advice on improving arable crop efficiency, with a view to increase overall farm profitability. Claire Taylor reports from a busy agenda.

“IS OUR agronomy now as good as it can be?” – that was the question posed by David Siddle, of Andersons Northern, during his presentation on the health of Scottish agriculture.

He stressed that arable farmers too often get caught up on the things that they can’t control and urged them to think about looking at costs which could be easily managed to improve overall efficiency.

“I am going to give a body swerve to Brexit as what we should be doing is focusing on what we can do – and there is a lot we can do,” said Mr Siddle. “Arable farmers are guilty of focusing on things out of their control like the price of fuel where there are bigger costs such as labour and machinery which can be managed more efficiently.

“Tailoring your inputs in order to achieve the best outcomes is a necessity – whether that be applying the right crops, at the right times, in the right places. We mustn’t adopt a blanket approach to application of any inputs," he argued.

He said that farmers need to consider sustainable rotations and weed management, as well as understanding the different yield outcomes which will lead to good returns. “Agronomy as a whole will become more important moving forward if we are to have profitable businesses,” he continued.

“There is a misconception that scale is the answer to everything. Some farmers will drive to crop every square metre of land, regardless of its quality and will invest in large scale machinery.

“Business profitability requires a focus on cost effective production, sustainable rotations, proportionate labour and machinery, and selecting which land to crop – it’s easy to get dragged in to that cycle of pursuing scale for the sake of it. Higher yields are better if only the costs of producing it are less than the sale price,” he insisted.

On encouraging more efficient farming practices, Mr Siddle added his own voice to recent speculation that future agricultural funding may be reallocated from the arable pot in to the sheep sector. “Overall, the arable sector is facing greater financial pressure and it is inevitable to me that more money is going to move from region one quality arable land up the hill and that will put pressure on us to run more efficient businesses,” he stressed.

Using field evenness to maximise yield

LINCOLNSHIRE farmer, Tim Lamyman – who holds the record for both oilseed rape and combining pea yields – shared some of his secrets in achieving those high yields.

He said his focus on field 'evenness' through raising and tailoring seed rates and the benefits of a thick canopy to ensure better light capture. “One of our wheat fields brought in 16.3 tonnes per ha and that’s from four different soil types which contain high clay content,” pointed out Mr Lamyman.

“Increasing the volume of plants in the field helps keep the area even and we have been pushing it to as much as 300kg of seed per ha.

“The secret to high yields is capturing sunlight and stopping disease getting in to the plant,” he continued. “Once you allow light to hit the ground, you are losing light capture, so we try to make the most of having a thick canopy of crop. We have also been successful in improving our overall yields by pushing production in the most difficult fields.

Mr Lamyman went on to explain why low input farmers will struggle to survive post-Brexit: “We are investing a serious amount of money in our crops and are seeing double the returns than that of low input farmers. Brexit is coming and we’d be in trouble if we were operating a low input system – with higher inputs we can just about survive,” he said.

A whisky business founded on flavour

Distillery managing director, Ian Palmer, of Inchdairnie Distillery, at Glenrothes, delivered his vision to create a whisky brand using modern technologies and different grains, with an ultimate focus on flavour.

He opened by saying: “We are not a craft company. We are not the way it was done, but the way it is going to be done. We are a new distillery with a modern outlook on how we make good whisky using modern technology."

Mr Palmer explained that by using a mash filter allowed the distillery to use different grains – one of only two distilleries doing so in Scotland. “Our whole business is built around flavour. We have absolutely no history or heritage to market ourselves upon but what we do have is a blank sheet of paper and an opportunity to take a different view on what we do and how we do it.

“Unlike other distilleries, we are prepared to pay more for lower yielding barley, which may not be efficient, but we chose our varieties based on flavour as flavour is the real value and without flavour what can I offer,” he added.

Inchdairnie Distillery prides itself on being Fife grown, Fife produced, and Fife distilled (see also Brian Henderson's Arable Matters column). Whisky is a competitive market to enter in to and thus Mr Palmer has had to create a product which can stand tall in a cut-throat market.

“Unlike a lot of farming produce, such as bread and milk, whisky at the end of the day is a choice and is something people can choose whether or not to spend their disposable income on,” he continued. “I must give consumers a reason to buy my stuff and that reason is flavour and a sense of provenance.

"I want to link all aspects of the process to the whole story of the brand – including the barley, rye, oats and wheat grown in Fife. We want to be part of Fife and we want to be able to say that this whisky was grown, matured and distilled in this region,” he argued.

Ignoring the vegan agenda ...

ROUNDING off the conference and providing food for thought were SAYFC members, Alistair Brunton and Iain Wilson, who recently returned from California from a two-week farm tour.

The SAYFC group they travelled with consisted of 16 delegates who began their tour with a trip to the McPhee Red Angus Ranch, in Lodi. "It came as a surprise during the visit to learn there is no compulsory tagging of cattle,” said Mr Brunton. “The US Government has no idea how many animals are living in the country."

California eased regulations for farmers by removing animal tagging regulations, which raised pressing questions over recording their carbon footprint.

Environmental concerns were also raised following a group visit to Blue Diamond Growers – the world’s largest almond co-operative. Mr Brunton talked of the colossal volume of water needed to maintain almond farming in the region.

“It costs £4000 an acre to irrigate almonds in California and that amounts to 90 gallons of water a day for one almond tree,” he told delegates.

Iain Wilson delivered a pertinent message from the California Dairy Sustainability Summit, they attended, on the impact that anti-farming/vegan campaigns were having on the industry: “We as farmers can be our own worst enemies at times,” he stressed, explaining that research had demonstrated that more than 50% of online traction for vegan content is generated by farmers themselves.

“We are effectively helping vegans spread their messages by engaging with them. The answer is not to engage, as they are achieving success by getting a reaction from the farming community, which increases their views and net reach," he pointed out.

"The answer is to stop spreading their messages by simply choosing not to watch, share or comment on their content,” he urged.