Oilseed rape sowings are set to fall this autumn for the fourth successive season due to the slump in rapeseed prices and mounting growing costs.
Rapeseed prices are down more than 40% from their peak just over four years ago, while control of blackgrass and flea beetles has pushed input cost higher.
Experts predict the area could decline nearly 10% to 580,000ha this autumn from the 630,000ha estimated to be currently in the ground.
We asked a trader, an agronomist, a farmer and an adviser for their views on the future of this vital break crop.
See also: Debate on the future of oilseed rape
Current rapeseed prices are near the breakeven point for many growers and a further fall in plantings may limit any future price falls.
With fewer fields of oilseed rape expected next season, this may see the end of the four-year-plus fall in rapeseed prices.
Oilseed rape needs to be profitable for growers to stick with the crop so the fall to the current price of about £250/t ex-farm could be a bottoming out from the peak of £412/t seen in January 2011.
“With the area going down, this is the best thing for prices,” says Owen Cligg, trading manager at farming co-operative United Oilseeds.
He forecasts that the UK rapeseed crop could reach 2.2m tonne for harvest 2015, down from 2.46m tonnes in 2014, from an area nearly 7% lower.
Smaller global rapeseed and sunflower crops could also help stabilise UK ex-farm prices, although there are higher worldwide soya bean stocks and plantings.
Mr Cligg says one key to future pricing is that the European Union maintains its mandate that all fuels must contain at least 7% of bio-fuels from first-generation crops such as oilseed rape.
This mandate is important as 60% of all EU rapeseed oil goes to make biofuels, and it is estimated that 40% of the UK crop is traded in the biofuel sector.
As oilseed rape crushers make the majority of their profit margin from rapeseed oil rather than meal, a good oil market is vital for price stability, he argues.
The best way to grow oilseed rape is to maximise yields so as to lower the overall cost of production per tonne.
Ben Coombs, commercial technical manager for Bayer CropScience says the breakeven for oilseed rape is at about 3.2t/ha, although growers should be targeting above the national average of 3.5t/ha.
For a high-input crop such as oilseed rape, it is difficult to cut back dramatically on variable costs so growers need to target treatments precisely, he says.
So if the area starts to stablise after next season’s likely drop, he say it could be a very valuable crop as long as growers keep on top of diseases and blackgrass.
The three big disease threats for oilseed rape – light leaf spot, phoma and sclerotinia – can each cut 0.4t/ha from yields, so fungicide treatments need to be targeted accurately.
“Light leaf spot is the septoria of oilseed rape, and preventation is much better than cure,” he says
This is the number-one yield-robbing disease of the crop, and with plenty of inoculum present there is a danger of it spreading from leaf material on to pods, where yield losses can be severe.
“With lower commodity cost, growers are looking to grow crops more cheaply – but that does not often work with rape,” he says.
The key disease risk during the flowering period is sclerotinia, and this risk is heighten with the current warm weather and overnight dews.
“As a result of this warm weather, risk is heightened just as oilseed rape is flowering so it is important that growers protect the flowers on their crops,” he says.
Martin Smart is planning to double his area of oilseed rape down to high-quality food-standard Holl varieties to help cushion his tighter margins.
He grows 400ha of oilseed rape in West Wiltshire and plans to put 20% of his crop this autumn down to these varieties, which will give him a £20/t premium.
The switch will be tempered by the problems of having to harvest and store these varieties separately from mainstream ones, and controlling charlock.
He was impressed by the Holl variety V316OL, which in a farm trial last season gave a yield of 5.5t/ha and an oil content of 47.7% on his light brashy soils where anything over 4t/ha is a bonus.
Some Holl varieties have shown an adverse reaction when using the herbicide Fox (bifenox) to control charlock, so this means he is unlikely to move to 100% Holl varieties in the future as charlock seed can contaminate the harvested crop.
His total area of oilseed rape is likely to fall 5% on the 1,600ha of arable land he manages at Ashton Farms near Trowbridge, stretching from Chippenham to Salisbury Plain.
The area will come down to help comply with the EU’s three-crop rule as he introduces spring barley, spring beans and maize in his cropping regime.
“Margins on oilseed rape are becoming very tight, with grassweed pressures building up and some of the chemistry not working as well as in the past,” he says.
The malting spring barley variety Propino has been a successful introduction to replace some oilseed rape, yielding more than 7.5t/ha and selling at a malting premium.
He has yet to see any benefit from higher oilseed rape yield by widening the rotation, but most believe there should be one.
Oilseed rape plantings are forecast to be down nearly 10% this autumn and then start to stabilise as growers look to premium-priced rapeseed.
David Leaper, seed technical manager at distributer Agrii, believes drillings this autumn could fall to 580,000ha compared with 630,000ha now in the ground.
This will come as growers look to comply with the European Union’s three-crop rule and control blackgrass. It also follows flea beetle crop damage last autumn.
The fall in area is likely to come largely in east and south-east England, worst hit by cabbage stem flea beetles, while growers further north and west are expected to maintain their areas.
New high-quality food-standard varieties high in oleic and low in linolenic acid (Holl) could take up to a tenth of the area this autumn, helping to boost returns.
These Holl varieties offer a premium of £20/t when grown on contract as they are in demand from restaurant chains such as KFC and McDonald’s.
Mr Leaper says with variable costs averaging £500/ha, any premium to help boost the price of rapeseed will be very welcome.
“Growers can look forward to technical advances that will reduce costs, such as more resistant varieties and low-cost establishment systems,” he says.
Mr Leaper suggests growers should be picking varieties with a minimum resistance score of 6 for light leaf spot and 5 for phoma on the HGCA Recommended List.
He warns that 30% of the oilseed rape area is covered by varieties with a light leaf spot score of 5 or less and this is a worry as the disease becomes more prevalent.