Dairy farmers with best margins spend more on fertilisers

Focus on getting the maximum return from the efficient use of every farm input – with more attention to detail, rather than simple cost reduction.

That’s the view of Sam Bell, commercial marketing manager for CF Fertilisers, who says the latest figures from the annual Farm Business Survey reveal that ranking farmers according to their output value: input cost ratio shows those making the most money per hectare have the highest fertiliser costs, along with higher labour, vet and medicine and purchased concentrate levels.

The Survey is based on results pulled together by a consortium of the universities of Cambridge, Newcastle, Nottingham and Reading, with the colleges of Askham Bryan, Duchy and Imperial… so carries high credibility.

“The survey shows that success doesn’t come from cutting costs – but rather from focusing on getting the maximum returns from all farm inputs based on efficiency – getting more out per unit for what you put in,” says Sam.

The difference between the top and the bottom 25% of farms ranked on output value: input cost ration was significant – for example the top banding had a farm business total income of £1036/ha against just £38 for the bottom group, and a net farm income of £896 against a minus figure of £15.

The difference in fertiliser input was £145/ha in the top group and £120/ha in the bottom group, with labour costs of £402/ha against £362/ha, vets and medicine costs of £109/ha and £87/ha and a difference of purchased concentrates of £887/ha to £750/ha.

“We should all be working towards the same goal,” says Sam. “Our farmers can get more from attention to efficiency rather than a simple cost reduction, and it’s up to us to make sure our farmers are given the best products, information and advisory support to turn what they buy from us into a saleable product.”

CF Fertilisers is very focussed on the use of purchased fertilisers in balance with organic manures to ensure nutrient use efficiency, and in getting the most out of any crop – both in terms of efficient growth and subsequent utilisation.

Key to this is knowing what you have to start with – one of the reasons the company is focusing on starting from the bottom up, knowing what you have available before you start to spend money.

Soil is the foundation of any farming system, yet many farmers still fail to recognise the importance of carrying out regular soil tests and having a Nutrient Management Plan (NMP), according to independent grassland consultant Dr George Fisher.

“It’s well documented that it’s a must to know what the soil contains before buying any product to meet the nutrient needs of any crop,” he says. “Yet uptake remains disappointingly low, with 15 per cent of dairy farmers, and 45 per cent of beef and sheep farmers, never soil testing.

“When we look at those who have and use a NMP for each field that optimises fertiliser use and grass production, and is updated every year, only 55 per cent of dairy farmers and 20 per cent of beef and sheep farmers apply this critical attention to detail.”

Referring to the annual Farm Practice Survey and the British Survey of Fertiliser Practice, he says these highlight the gaps in farm management. “The approach is simple and effective, knowing what you have in your soils and manures and using a plan that ensures you only purchase the right fertiliser products and apply according to need: optimising inputs and production.”

Working with CF Fertilisers, Dr Fisher is encouraged that the majority of farmers are moving in the right direction, with 69 per cent of cattle slurry now being applied in the spring and summer when crops can make the best use of the organic nitrogen applied. But he says few are taking the results from this application sufficiently into account.

He urges farmers to grow as much energy on the farm as they can, before buying in supplements, and suggests an important foundation is rigorous soil testing every two to three years. In addition, they should update their NMP every year, actively using the information as a valuable management tool.

“At the cost of around £10, soil testing can be done for you, or carried out by yourself,” he says, stressing the importance of taking a random selection of samples across the productive parts of the field, away from gateways, water troughs and tree canopies to get a representative picture of what the field holds nutritionally.

“Maintaining a strict focus on costs, particularly when the milk: concentrate price ratio is falling, means that knowing the full picture of your soil analysis has never been so critical.”

Dr Fisher urges farmers who haven’t already tested their soils to get out on the land in January and February, and test unmanured soils to make the most of the 2016 growing season.

“Sadly, too many farmers still don’t value the importance of soil testing as a key tool in their farming operations, and some NMPs are being completed more as a tick box exercise, then hidden away on the shelf. These are crucial farm tools, especially when the squeeze is on returns.”

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