UK arable production margins are holding up better than many on the world stage but there are signs that the country’s productivity is slowing compared to other countries, visitors to ProCam’s spring conference were told. The downturn in grain prices is affecting soya and maize producers more than wheat-based countries but a sustained uplift in production efficiency will be needed to meet the growing demand of the future. A fundamental change in markets over the last 20 years means global over-supply is a thing of the past, with the last two years of price limiting abundance very much against the long-term trend, senior Rabobank analyst Harry Smit told delegates.

“There is rising demand from China and Asia for grain to drive meat and dairy production and this will be a main feature of markets in the future. There is no real over-supply anymore but the restoration of stock levels recently has resulted in grain prices falling. Although markets are currently nervous and react quickly to any change in supply and demand, it is difficult to see a reason for prices to rise much over the next year or so.”

Although margins for UK growers had been hit in recent years because of the reduced prices, generally speaking they had fared better than their US counterparts.

“Indications are that wheat-based UK growers are breaking even with maybe a little profit but corn and soya-based producers in America are suffering the most from the downturn in markets.”

AHDB Chairman Peter Kendall said feeding 9 billion people in a climate change future would be a challenge for all in the industry.

“Productivity in the UK is more or less standing still whilst in countries such as France, Denmark, Germany and Ireland, it is increasing. We are lagging behind, yet the UK has the fastest growing population in Europe.”

A longer term approach to R&D was needed with greater emphasis on applied research and a larger role for levy boards, he argued.

“We are on the cusp of another agricultural revolution driven by data. To get the best edge possible we have to focus on relentless benchmarking, develop business and management skills, learn more from non-subsidised sectors and be prepared to adopt new technology.”

ProCam head of production Nick Myers said benchmarking performance through the company’s 4Cast arable database was showing the UK’s top producers were still able to make a profit even with the low grain prices.

“Our top quartile of producers achieved around 2.5 t/ha more than the DEFRA national average of 8.8t/ha last year and our average wheat yields were 1.2t/ha higher at 10.0t/ha. Yields are the key to driving profitability in the current situation. One of the key focal points for all growers should be reducing costs/tonne of production and the more output you have the lower this will be.”

High biomass was needed to achieve these yields, he explained, so future agronomy programmes needed to be built not just around reducing disease but maximising plant health, too.

“Our fungicide trials have shown a 3.5 to 4.0 t/ha benefit from full fungicide programmes in high disease risk years producing a margin over input costs of between £300 – 400/ha. Even in lower disease risk years like 2015 the yield responses were still around 2.5t/ha over untreated. This isn’t just from controlling diseases, fungicides also influence plant physiology allowing them to take up water better, use nutrition more effectively and stay greener for longer.”

The future would be challenging for UK producers with reduced availability of crop inputs and the growing resistance to many existing actives compounded by the cost of developing new chemistry, but concentrating on management detail could do much to lift efficiency, Nick Myers suggested.

“There is no ‘magic bullet’ – an aggregation of marginal gains should be the target. The best farms do a lot of things a little better across the board rather than focusing on one particular area to the exclusion of others.”