Wed, 05 Sept 2018
Farmer and land agent Tom Bishop has jetted off to New Zealand for six months so he can be better informed about farming without subsidies, post-Brexit.
New Zealand abandoned its subsidy system overnight more than 30 years ago and Mr Bishop, an associate partner at BCM Rural Property Specialists at Sutton Scotney, near Winchester, Hampshire, wants to find out what UK farmers can learn.
So often UK farmers measure success in tonnes harvested per hectare or pounds per kilo. New Zealanders say they can reach a 45kg liveweight for their lambs or 10 tonnes of wheat per hectare, but what they really want to know is return on capital employed, drilling down to the return per kilogram of nitrogen applied or the return per kilo of dry matter produced where animal feed is concerned.
This was one of my most valuable lessons so far. I have been dwelling on it during the depths of South Island winter.
Either pre- or post-Brexit we should be considering that this type of review allows us to analyse our enterprises on a more critical level.
Benchmarking against other farms is irrelevant because there are so many variations between them.
Any farmer could apply nitrogen to the maximum, spend above £250 per hectare on sprays and farm thousands of acres in what outsiders may perceive the most perfect business, but is it the most profitable one?
Perhaps if we did some NZ benchmarking we would find that our best-performing farmers could rank among the UK’s small-scale county council tenants rather than the large cooperative farming operations.
Resourcefulness will be key post-Brexit.
The scale of the iconic New Zealand South Island “stations” and their productivity are outstanding.
Sheep mobs (groups sub-divided from larger flocks) can be larger than the size of my entire two UK flocks, while applying fertiliser and top seed dressing from aeroplanes is an eye-opener to me.
However, the smaller, owner-operated farms use the same key performance indicators and regularly outperform the iconic stations for return on inputs.
Water is much in focus in the UK after the July heatwave.
The importance of its availability, quality and effect on the environment is something we all urgently need to consider.
At home, I have never had much thought for water, especially with three springs on our Welsh hill farm, and I had the same mindset here in NZ until recently.
The Country Land and Business Association recently published a paper on land management and, importantly, water resource to help justify future subsidy payments.
Lessons from NZ suggest we should take serious note as I have been to farms where land within certain catchment areas has been compulsorily purchased by the government, in one instance up to one third of a 6,000-acre farm.
The thinking is that removing livestock from the catchment will help improve water quality.
It is a stark warning that should we not protect our watercourses correctly, we may risk losing our land if the UK Government takes this approach.
While the farmer was compensated for the loss of land, the economy of scale for efficient production was affected.
It may be worth identifying all land that may be hit by such a proposal on your farm, assessing how your business would cope with reduced production.
We find it hard to justify irrigation systems, unless for high-value crops in East Anglia.
However, irrigation in NZ transforms a number of farms to allow the stock units to increase, animals to be finished and fertility to increase in areas that receive only millimetres of rainfall a year while the nearby west coast at Milford Sound is deluged by up to seven metres.
Water is therefore essential to allow farms to be transformed and, with climate change a hot topic, and the recent heatwave as reminder, I would urge everyone with extraction licences, watercourses and historic boreholes to ensure that they are up-to-date, licences renewed, and catchment areas farmed with environmental factors given utmost importance.
Who knows, in the future how valuable this will become in developing alternative farming enterprises and transferring farming assets?