Many of the novel alternatives to traditional crops can be more demanding on management, but if you get it right, the gross margins can be much better than crops such as combinable peas and beans, says Mr Hall.

Some also offer useful alternatives to spring cropping to aid cultural blackgrass control, while many supply different markets to commodity crops. So it is vital to keep a close eye on the latest contracts available, he says.

Miscanthus (elephant grass)

  • Suited to: Traditional maize-growing areas. Miscanthus will grow on a wide range of soils and tolerates a pH of 5.5-7.5. It is unsuited to land which is regularly waterlogged in winter, as this will hinder harvesting.
  • Establishment: By planting pre-propagated plants or broadcasting and incorporating rhizomes. Shoots emerge in mid-April when soil temperature is above 6C and reach 1-2m by August. Establishment costs 2250/ha (920/ha may be available under the energy crops scheme). About 40kg/ha of N, P and K is required in the first year, but the crop is self-sufficient once established.
    Harvest and yields: Harvesting is usually in autumn by mowing/swathing and baling or in bulk by forage harvesters. Yields are low in the first two years and may not be worth harvesting. Average output after the crop is established may be 13t/ha dry matter.
  • Market and prices: Prices range from 27/t for power station fuel and 45/t for animal bedding. But values could increase to 75/t to meet increased demand as interest in the crop grows.

Borage

  • Suited to: Lighter soils, as a good soil tilth is essential. Borage is also suited to lower rainfall areas to avoid difficult harvesting conditions.
  • Establishment: Sown from mid-April when soil temperatures are above 8C. Crop protection is relatively simple, but powdery mildew and broadleaved weeds can be problems. Many contracts stipulate that pesticides may not be used. Fertiliser costs are also low (50/ha), as the crop has low N needs. Volunteers can be difficult to control in other crops.
  • Harvest and yields: Borage is harvested in mid to late-August. While existing arable machinery can be used, swathing and harvesting with a pick-up header is preferred to conventional headers to avoid pod shatter and stop indeterminate crop flowering. Average yield is 0.35t/ha, but output can reach 0.8t/ha.
    Market and prices: Main end uses are for industrial applications and use as a dietary supplement in animals. Prices range from 1800-2100/t, depending on contracts.

Sunflowers

  • Suited to: Lighter soils and a mild climate. Sunflowers are extremely weather-sensitive and perform best in the south-east, particularly Sussex and Kent.
  • Establishment: Usually planted in April/May when soil temperatures are above 9C – late drilling allows excellent blackgrass control. Planting must be carried out on wide spacings (eg 30cm). Spraying is mainly for weed control, but sclerotinia may be a problem in damp conditions. Fertiliser requirements are low, particularly N, making the crop suitable for NVZs.
  • Harvest and yields: Conventional combine headers can be used. New hybrid varieties can yield 2t/ha and up to 2.5t/ha in the most favourable conditions.
  • Market and prices: Main end uses include birdseed, limited human consumption and pharmaceuticals. Price is about 200/t, but drying costs alone can be as high as 50/t, as the crop must be dried to 8-9% moisture content for safe storage.

Short rotation coppice (willow or poplar)

  • Suited to: Broad range of soil types, but needs a regular supply of moisture.
  • Establishment: SRC needs a fine seed-bed, and a specialist planter is used to plant cuttings. Inputs are low, although some fertiliser is required annually after the crop has been harvested. Pest and weed control is essential during the first two years. But after this the crop should be competitive against weeds. Crops should last up to 20 years. An establishment grant of 1100/ha is available under the energy crops scheme, but this is due to cease in 2007.
  • Harvest and yields: SRC will not be harvested in the first three years to allow plants to develop. Harvesting is by standard forage harvester, but a specialist header is required. The crop will yield an average of 30t/ha (oven-dried) in early harvests, and this may increase to 35odt/ha in mid-life of the plant.
  • Market and prices: The main end use is fuel for power stations. Prices range from 35 to 45/odt.

Camelina (False flax/Gold of pleasure)

  • Suited to: Most UK conditions (Camelina is hardy, drought tolerant and fast growing).
  • Establishment: Usually spring-sown and requires low inputs.
  • Harvest and yields: Output is about 2.5t/ha.
  • Market and prices: Fatty acids in the extracted oil are used as a food supplement and the oil is also used for cosmetics and as a drying oil. Prices depend on quality and end use, but are usually about 250/t.

Echium

  • Suited to: Lighter land.
  • Establishment: Requires similar husbandry to borage. Weed control can be a problem. There appear to be no significant pests for the crop.
  • Harvest and yields: Harvesting in July/August is carried out with a swather, which permits better usage of the machine once oilseed rape is finished.
  • Market and prices: The seed is rich in stearidonic acid, which is used in cosmetic creams. Buy-back contracts should be sought with the seed producers.

Grain maize

  • Suited to: Generally grown south of the line between Bristol and Norwich, though it is generally accepted that the UK climate is not warm enough to produce consistent results.
  • Establishment: Ground preparation is essential, it cannot root through a pan. A precision maize drill is best for sowing in soil temperatures >10C. Does not require too much fertiliser, but potash is important.
  • Harvest and yields: The crop is usually cut with a specialised header/concave at the end of October at 30-35% moisture, and dried through a continuous flow dryer. Drying costs of 15/t are not uncommon. Yields about 7-11t/ha.
  • Market and prices: There are several end uses, including biofuels, human consumption and micronising or crimping for animal feed. Quality is key to securing a good premium. Prices are typically 80-90/t ex-farm, although a 20/t premium for non-GM crops is possible.

Lupins

  • Suited to: Light, free draining land, pH 5-7. They will not tolerate alkaline soils or very heavy land.
  • Establishment: Spring lupins (sown mid-March to early April) have been much more successful than winter types, but variety choice is critical. (Whites have a higher protein content and potentially greater yields than blues or yellows.) No N is required, but P and K should be replaced afterwards (50-55kg/ha). There is no serious pest threat.
  • Harvest and yields: Harvested from mid-August onwards (drying costs are potentially high).
  • Market and prices: Lupins are a good substitute for soya beans for livestock feed due to their good quality, high protein content (40-50%). Only 33% of the grain crop (20% of total) is traded, though there is a ready market from feed compounders and a growing farm-to-farm trade. Blue lupins fetch 95-100/t, white and yellow 110/t (white up to 130/t).

Crambe – Abyssinian mustard

  • Suited to: Range of soils (relatively drought tolerant). Can be grown on set-aside. It cannot cross-pollinate with oilseed rape, so growers are not restricted by isolation distances, as with food/non-food varieties of rape.
  • Establishment: Sown from April-end May (only requires 100-120 days to reach maturity post-emergence). Agronomy is similar to oilseed rape, but good weed control is essential and pests and diseases are rarely a problem.
  • Harvest and yields: Timely harvest is important; too early and crop will wrap, too late and it will lodge. Yields can be very low.
  • Market and prices: Crambe contains fewer polyunsaturated fatty acids than high erucic acid rape, so is of great interest to industry. Most contracts require 98% purity, 35% oil content, 9% moisture. Premium/deduction of 2.70/t per 1% oil content above/below that level. Fixed price buy-back contracts are available.

Hemp – fibre and dual purpose varieties

  • Suited to: High haulage costs mean most is grown close to processors within the south east. Growers no longer need individual licences.
  • Establishment: Drilled in late April/May and grows 3-3.5m tall (dual purpose is slightly shorter).
  • Harvest and yields: The fibre crop is cut in August and left to ret in the field for two to four weeks, before baling. The dual-purpose crop is combined for seed before baling. Straw yield is 1.5t/ha. Yields of dual purpose are about 1.25t/ha, with prices at about 350/t.
  • Market and prices: Future demand looks strong – 80% of the fibre goes into industrial textiles, the core pith is used for horse or poultry bedding and the seed used for fishing bait, birdseed and oil for nutritional supplements and cosmetics. There is year-round demand from Hemcore. Prices reflect storage costs and range from 95 to 125/t.