Farming Minister George Eustice told the Northern Farming Conference 2015 that technology is the key to unlocking the potential of farming.
Speaking at the event in Hexham, the minister said how food and farming is central to the northern economy, employing over 70,000 people.
He said: “Although there has been great pressure on farm incomes over the past 12 months, I believe the industry has a good future and technological advances will help British farmers improve their productivity and make the industry more resilient and better placed to deal with pests and diseases.
“Farmers are playing a central role in building a strong economy in the North and I want to support them to grow more and sell more.”
The issue of continued price volatility, which is pushing many farmers in the region to the brink, was explained by conference chairman Andrew Robinson, who said: “In my lifetime as a farmer’s son and now as an accountant I have never experienced a time when the farmgate prices for all farm produce across the board have been under so much pressure.
“Usually in agriculture, when one sector has been doing bad at least another sector is doing well, and it isn’t at the moment. We have to be positive, challenge each other and work together to help push this great industry of ours forward. One way we can do this is by unlocking the potential of our crops and livestock.”
Essex farmer and NFU Vice President Guy Smith echoed Mr Eustice’s comments on technology, saying the industry was “on the brink of a technical revolution” that will help farmers farm more responsibly and efficiently.
He called on greater leadership from government to give farmers the confidence to invest. He said: “If you don’t have enough profit in the food chain for agriculture then farmers will not be able to invest in these technologies at a time when they very much need to do so”.
Gordon Whitford, Regional Agriculture Director of HSBC, urged producers across the board to do more to monitor their costs and performance. It was an issue in the industry that not enough people were benchmarking in order to understand their competitive position, he warned.
Mr Whitford said the best farmers, and those most likely to get the support of the banks, were low-cost producers, with great attention to detail and who saw benchmarking and budgeting as essential.
“I was talking to a consultant who got six struggling farmers together and asked which of the six actually benchmarked. After a prolonged pause one of the farmers said: Is that not what businessmen do? That’s an issue in the industry.
“Farmers do need to monitor what costs they are incurring and they do need to see what they can do to improve.”
Dewi Jones, CEO of Innovis, said that sheep farmers needed to have a better understanding of the retail supply chain in order to improve the performance of their business.
He said: “The retail trade is changing dramatically in response to people’s shopping habits. Farmers must understand where the value of their product lies in the market place and focus on that.”
He also encouraged farmers to concentrate on the elements of animal husbandry they can control such as nutrition, genetics and health.
He added: “The easiest way to reduce production costs is to reduce disease. Every new animal is a potential threat so the more information you have from the vendor on its health record the better. Farmers must also adopt a robust culling policy to eradicate existing disease.”
The day was rounded off by Robert Thornhill, who farms near Bakewell in Derbyshire and Kent arable farmer Tom Sewell.
An advocate of mob grazing - using a large concentration of animals to graze a small area or small paddocks for very short periods of time – Robert stressed how crucial rest periods and plant diversity are to efficient grazing.
He said: “If you can maintain a diversity of plant species, you are going to elongate the window of opportunity for that land.
“Rotation is equally important – let the cattle graze and then get them off. If you allow above ground recovery, it will become below ground recovery and you will grow more pasture.”
Tom – a proponent of sowing using minimum tillage – is moving towards a complete no-till system to maintain soil fertility and balance nutrients to grow the best possible crops with maximum yield.
He said: “We have not ploughed on our farm for 16 years. If you can grow a good crop it makes sense that there is nothing wrong with the roots and the soil. Why is it then that every year we feel the need to rip that soil up?
“The only real difference is a small amount of stubble and so I would urge all farmers to ask themselves if ploughing is not just a cosmetic function. A minimum tillage approach may not be as attractive as a ploughed field but the reality is that it can improve soils, yield and profitability as well as save you time.”
Now in its sixth year, the Northern Farming Conference aims to give farmers the chance to consider how best to progress their businesses over the next few years. It is a joint venture between the CLA, Strutt & Parker, Bond Dickinson, Armstrong Watson, Catchment Sensitive Farming, Gibson & Co Solicitors and Hexham and Northern Marts.
You can now download each of the presentations given at the Northern Farming Conference 2015 in PDF format using the links below. Please be aware that permission must be sought from the owners if any information contained within the presentations is to be used for other purposes.
- Guy Smith – Keynote Address
- Gordon Whitford – Unlocking Potential: The banker’s view
- George Eustice MP – Keynote Address
- Robert Edwards – Crop Protection: From a Reactive to a Proactive Approach
- Matthew Shepherd – How Farmers can save the planet
- Dewi Jones – Advances in Sheep Breeding
- Robert Thornhill – Forage & Grazing Techniques for Sustainable Pasture Based Farming
- Tom Sewell – Understanding and Implementing No-Till Systems
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