Farm Diary Sept 9 2009

BACK on the farm and it's suddenly all systems go! Maize ready to cut at Tillington and Ripley, but the maize clamp full of muck waiting to go in the anaerobic digester.

A flurry of phone calls from the Land-Rover as we cruise up the motorway in France, arranging rented land for maize next year, contractors to shift the solid muck from the farm on to this newly rented land, and a call to arrange the first 300 acres of harvesting by the time you read this.

This has all gone to plan since I got back, plus I have arranged for a few hundred lambs to come and eat all this grass! The first lot have arrived, and are chomping away at some very nice clover lays.

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We were delayed in Calais for three and a half hours due to bad weather, and I was able to finish another book (a rare treat).

We should have been home by 9.00pm on Thursday, but as we reached the M23 near Gatwick, all lanes shut, diverting all traffic on to the hard shoulder (road works).

At midnight we had three mile tailbacks, having seen the odd car on our journey two thirds the length of France, it was amazing to see all these cars on the motorway at this time of night. Welcome home I thought!

The roofs are on the towers and we are producing gas! You can smell it; just like rotten eggs.

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This is a small amount of very poor quality gas, and we will be installing the 'flare' this week, so we can burn it just like a 'North Sea rig'.

Practically all the work is finished and everything works. However, this week we will have computer technicians arrive on sight to fit the operating systems that will run the whole shooting match.

I hope that it turns out to be better than the sort of computer systems that run government departments (NHS for example). The 'burger van' is on site and is heating the first tower gently, and we should be in action and ready to start the engine by the end of the month (?).

By the time you read this; we should be busy teaching the first calves at Tillington to see a 'robot' as 'mum', with ID collars around their neck and milk in the feeding station every four hours for another feed.

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They learn very quickly (I am told) to fit into a pattern of small meals (which is natural) and do not queue up or get in the way of other calves who's turn it is to drink.

Time will tell, and I am looking forward to see how much easier it is all going to be, how much better the calves do and how much less milk powder we use from birth to weaning for each calf, which will pay back the capital investment over time.

Scanning through the mountain of press and emails on my return, I see that Government and indeed Hilary Benn have been talking about food security; indeed a 'radical rethink of Government policy' was mentioned and is the closest we have seen government moving to promote GM food, which of course has to be an important part of future strategy as this column has often pointed out.

Growing GM still seems a little way off (although trials are once again underway in the UK), but as we are feeding GM feed as a proportion of most animals' diet in the UK and have done for years, it makes sense to remove some of the silly rules that just hold things up and add cost.

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The row surrounding 'organic food' is still rumbling on which is sad and rather silly.

There has been a lot of column inches about 'killer cows' and how to survive the dangerous footpaths of the UK, which just goes to show how disconnected people are with their roots and the countryside, and how vulnerable people are to everyday threats and dangers due to the cotton wool approach of those who seek to over protect us from even ourselves.

No such thinking in the USA, where I saw that a tractor dealer in South Carolina is offering a free AK 47 weapon with every new tractor bought.

Farmers need protection he says, 'it's a win-win situation'.

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The best news of all is that the European Commission has launch an investigation into supermarket dairy pricing, after finding that retail prices have dropped only two per cent although wholesale prices of dairy products have suffered huge cuts in price.

The EC found that wholesale butter prices were down 39 per cent, skim milk powder 49 per cent, cheese down 18 per cent, and milk down 31 per cent.

This is seen as profiteering, denying the consumer low prices and denying the dairy industry greater sales which would arrive on the back of lower prices.

The low demand of dairy products has resulted in the Commission buying butter and powder with taxpayer's money. In my role as vice-chairman on COPA (milk) in Brussels, I have been telling the Commission that the supply chain does not work, and that powerful retailers are bad for farmers, wholesalers, processors and consumers. Now we have proof of that, we need urgent action.

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Price Waterhouse reported on the collapsed farmers co-operative Dairy Farmers of Britain whilst I was away, with no real surprises in the depressing report, showing a flawed business plan, poor management, and bad decision making.

In fact it makes it clear that the Co-operative had no chance of success, once it had purchased the ACC business from the Co-operative group for far too much money, demonstrated by the fact that they only made a positive cash flow once in the last six years.

They were able to continue operations on the back of farmer's capital contributions amounting to almost 60m, and now the total debt to farmers as owners and suppliers of milk to the business is almost 100m, with no chance of a single penny for anyone.

Lax laws and regulations governing Co-op's need to be changed in order to protect share-holders and prevent such a disaster happening ever again