Farm Diary - February 3

AFTER months of delay and weeks of frustration, we finally started our CHP (combined heat and power) engine last week.

It was a sweet moment, and we can now look forward to generating some electricity and begin to repay the capital outlay.

Two weeks ago, following a long Christmas and New Year holiday, and after snow and bad weather had prevented them arriving before Christmas and after New Year; the Germans were back on site.

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We were instructed to stoke the bio-digester unit up in order to produce much more gas in preparation for the big day when they would press the starter button on the engine.

We stepped up the amount of maize silage each day, and sure enough within 48 hours the gas yield increased with the 'flare' running longer and harder each day.

On the Thursday, after checking all the components thoroughly, and carrying out the commissioning checks, we were all ready for the big moment.

The start button was pressed, and a rather large solenoid in the starter system failed!

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We were told that this component was not a normal failure and that they would have to return to Germany to pick up another.

Off they went, leaving us with a plant that was now putting out so much gas that the flare was running flat-out day and night, as we struggled to dampen the whole thing down over the weekend, coping with all the gas produced and keeping a watchful eye on all the pressures.

They were back on the Monday, where more discussions took place on site between the engineers from Germany and the British chap who was in charge of the engine warranty on behalf of 'Deutz'. There seemed to be some disagreement over the work still to be done on commissioning the engine and further checks were made, with more components being dismantled and wires everywhere. Eventually, last Wednesday it was started and I missed it!

I had an NFU Dairy Board meeting to chair that day, and I had to make do with an excited site manager on the phone, telling me that it was running and holding the mobile phone out in the engine room so that I could hear it.

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Just to spoil the moment and lest I became too excited, I was told that further commissioning work needed to be done and that we would not be exporting any electricity for a few days yet.

Frankly, I can wait a little longer after all this, as we had started to think that this engine would never run; that it would quietly rust away in its expensive luxury sound proof room, as the gas was burnt away day after day, week after week.

*We are back to normal on the farm now that the weather has improved, and of course it is now February. The days are getting noticeably longer, and within a month we can look forward to spring. I could really do with a dry spell soon, so that the ground dries out and is then in a fit state to start warming up. With all the wet weather and saturated conditions underfoot, I worry about all my new leys as they may not have the root structure to cope with the waterlogged conditions.

If it dried out sufficiently, I could also run the drill over some of the fields that failed in the early autumn due to the very dry conditions!

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n Defra, the Government Ministry that is meant to look after agricultural affairs without mentioning the word 'Farming' or even 'agriculture', has failed to meet its target of reducing 'red tape' by 25 per cent.

Now, that is no surprise to farmers, however, I was staggered to read that in its lamentable attempt at defending itself, the department claimed that it had cut red tape by 15 per cent since 2005. I wonder how many farmers will have noticed that.

Those that take an interest in such matters, claim that Defra's failure has cost the industry 25 million, and Jim Paice (Shadow Farming Minister) claims that not only will those involved in farming not have noticed any cut in beurocracy, but that Government calculations ignore the significant capital costs of compliance, such as new slurry storage facilities to comply with Nitrates directive.

In 2005 when the Defra target was set, the red tape on farm businesses stood at an unbelievable 527m. When the next Government looks at where deep cuts need to be made in order to balance the books at some future date, I only hope they start with beaurocrats, and there are plenty of them in agriculture!

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The real worry is that Government is now ignoring Defra, and a good example of this is the recent developments over disease levy.

The so called 'cost and responsibility levy' has changed into something more sinister.

A draft bill seems to ignore the cost element, and it seems that this will be covered separately by a finance bill.

Should this happen, proper public scrutiny and consultation and a detail look at the costs would be missing, and given the vague nature of the present bill, it is tantamount to expecting farmers to shoulder massive costs without any detail of how those costs would be arrived at.

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Given this government's appalling record concerning bovine TB, and that its own laboratories were involved in the last Foot and Mouth outbreak, it is incredible that they would press ahead with this matter in such an insensitive way.

It looks to me as if the treasury will call the shots on the 'cost', leaving Defra to talk to the industry about the 'responsibility'; this is completely unacceptable.

Given the financial state of the country, it is an uphill struggle to get government to face up to its responsibilities these days; they are completely overwhelmed by the challenge of coping with the present crisis.

Given that a General Election is imminent, little sense will be made of these matters until someone is in a position to take a longer term look at what is required and has a proper long term objective and strategy in place. We live in hope!