Clinic consultation

Business Clinic: Should I plow the grass for grain?

Whether it’s a legal, tax, insurance, management or land issue, the experts at Farmers Weekly can help.

Emily Stone of Carter Jonas Rural explains how to assess whether it is worth plowing grasslands for grain.

See also: Business Clinic – how do we deal with the farm ideas of the daughter

Q. I want to plow grass because of high grain prices – should I?

A: With farm gate wheat prices approaching £300/t and futures ranging from £250 to £255/t, consideration should be given to bringing less productive land back into production.

Before deciding if this is the right course of action, there are several things to keep in mind.

First, the regulations. Land designated as grass that has been uncultivated for a period of time by physical or chemical means requires Natural England (NE) approval to increase productivity.

If he has been in the pasture for more than 15 years, he will definitely need an approval. Between five and 15 years may require it – but you will need to contact NE to confirm.

To obtain consent, you must submit an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) through an EIA Screening Decision before any changes are made.

One of the key criteria is the completion of an Environmental Screening Report (ESR).

This should include a full description of the project and its environmental effects, maps and plans of the affected area, a description of the environmental sensitivity of the project, and any details of the mitigation measures that will lessen the effect of the project .

A landscape assessment may be required if field boundaries are moved or altered.

Depending on the type of operation, an archaeological or biological assessment may be required.

Biological surveys will be required if priority habitats, local wildlife sites, priority or protected species, a site of special scientific interest or other significant designation are present.

NE suggests that the biological assessment include data from Defra’s Interactive Magic Map, the local Environmental Records Centre, the Wildlife Trust and the RSPB.

More detailed, operation-specific data will likely need to be provided by environmental consultants.

For projects aimed at increasing the productivity of uncultivated land, the required form is EIA 1. Subject to the complexity of the proposal, NE aims to respond within 35-90 days.

If approved, a selection decision is valid for three years. If not, you will need to seek a consent decision, which will require specialist environmental consultation.

If a consent decision is rejected, an appeal can be made through the Minister for Agriculture within three months of notice of the decision from Natural England.

The second consideration is financial. While the price of wheat makes it attractive to offer less productive land, the significant increase in production costs is accompanied by problems with the supply of inputs

If many people convert grasslands to arable land, the government may require some landowners to return to grasslands, adding an additional risk of wasted investment.

Finally, consider Countryside Stewardship (CS) agreements.

Given rising costs, there may be an opportunity for those not in active stewardship agreements to place land in options that provide guaranteed income with fewer unknown costs.

At current payment rates grassland under the GS2 option can yield £132/ha with minimal associated costs.

Commodity prices have never been so high and they seem unlikely to be sustainable.

So it might make more sense to look at your profit margin over five or 10 years and compare it to the margin of a CS option.

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