A keen demand for supply and buoyant gross margins mean that field beans are a serious option for spring drilling.

This is the message from merchants and growers across the country. Peter Daubney, who trades up to 100,000t of beans for the Openfield co-operative, predicts an increase in the acreage of spring beans for 2013.

He says that early predictions for next year’s price are about £220/t, with a £20/t to £30/t premium for human consumption grade produce.

Over the past few years UK production has dropped from a high of about 600,000t down to around 400,000t this year. However, there is a recognised Middle Eastern market for human consumption of at least 350,000t and plenty of capacity for animal feed in the home and Spanish markets.

Hampshire-based trader Andrew Brown is also optimistic about the future of beans in the arable rotation.

Highest-paying crop

“Last year we were down to 32,000ha of spring beans from a high of 44,000ha in 2009,” he says. “But we are looking at a total market for beans of up to 600,000t across the country. We have had two good years for spring beans on the whole, with yields well over 5t/ha consecutively. Spring beans have been the highest-paying crop for some growers.”

He puts the success down to growers being more conscious of crop management. “In the past, beans were the cheap and cheerful crop and yields were very inconsistent,” he explains, “but now with care to establish optimum populations, weed and pest control, farmers can see the benefits as a break crop and the financial incentive is there.”

A bright future for spring beans as a break crop is also predicted by Anthony Biddle of the PGRO. He argues that winter wheat/oilseed rape rotations are not sustainable. “Beans provide an opportunity for blackgrass control and supply an estimated 40-60kg/ha of nitrogen for the following crop. The nitrogen fixing value of beans is generally understated. They don’t require any nitrogen fertiliser – they fix all they need.

As their roots degrade throughout the following winter, they provide a following crop with slowly released nitrogen over a long period of time that isn’t lost through leaching. The value of this has been estimated at about £1/kg.”

For a successful spring crop, Dr Biddle recommends drilling in March, ideally after autumn ploughing or direct drilling. If the season remains really wet, drilling can be delayed up to the end of April, but this will not give the best crops. The aim is to establish 40 plants/sq m.

Certified seed

He believes that purchased seed is very reliable with less than 10% loss of establishment. No seed treatments are required, but he warns against using home-saved seed unless it has been tested for stem nematode. This is critical because if this pest is introduced into the soil it can persist for at least 10 years.

The optimum plant population to go for is 40 plants/sq m, as it produces plants with only one or two stems and good standing ability that can withstand a late harvest if necessary. Ideally there will be very little branching, so that pods are not produced too low to the ground for combining.

Export market

Fuego is still the mainstay variety because of its reliability and suitability for the export market, according to Mr Brown and Mr Daubney, but they warn that seed may be scarce for 2013 as availability lags behind demand. Continental seed may be available, but it will be more expensive.

For the future, Vertigo is showing impressive yield increases of up to 14%, but there is no seed available yet.

Spring beans provide an ideal cultural opportunity for growers struggling to get on top of blackgrass, Jim Scrimshaw, principal technical officer at PGRO, believes. “I have never seen wheat crops with infestations like it before this year,” he says, “even where growers have spent a lot on control.

“With spring cropping there can be several attempts at the stale seed-bed stage to get on top of blackgrass. There is a wide choice of products available for use pre-emergence, but they need to be used when there is some moisture in the soil.

Pest and disease management will be driven by weather, and bruchid beetle control will be vital if crops are to achieve human consumption premiums. Adult beetles lay eggs on developing pods and the larvae then enter and feed on the beans, rendering them unsuitable for export. They can still be sold for feed. Spraying is recommended if there are two consecutive days above 20C when the crop is at the first pod stage. A repeat dose may be required seven to 10 days later.

“Other pests to be vigilant for are pea and bean weevil, which feed on young leaves and root nodules, preventing nitrogen fixing, and green pea and black bean aphids. Crops should be kept as clean as possible within the restrictions of bee safety and number of sprays.”

The PGRO experts also agree that beans will require fungicide treatment at some stage, depending on weather conditions. Downy mildew is soil-borne and is usually only a risk to long-term growers, but rust and chocolate spot may arrive late in the season and occasionally secondary mildew infections.

Al Brooks

Al Brooks: Buckinghamshire

Spring beans were the star performer this year, with yields of up to 7.5t/ha for farm manager Al Brooks. They did exceptionally well last year too.

He has grown up to 140ha of the crop at Waddesdon Estates, near Aylesbury, for more than five years.

However, he says that beans are his most frustrating crop because, despite attention to detail, they are notoriously unpredictable.

“A few years ago our beans won first prize in a local crops competition, but when it came to harvest, they yielded virtually nothing,” he explains. He puts this year’s success down to sunlight at just the right time – and luck.

Despite the good returns, Mr Brooks had decided to go out of beans for 2013, but has changed his mind based on practical and financial considerations. “This autumn has been absolutely rotten and some oilseed rape crops are looking as though they have a very uncertain future,” he explains.

“We will put beans back in next spring, but we have underwritten them with a fixed minimum forward contract, so that we have a base figure to tailor our inputs accordingly.”

Beans provide a good break in the Waddesdon arable rotation, which includes winter wheat, winter oilseed rape and spring linseed, for several reasons, according to the manager. “They enable efficient use of equipment and provide invaluable opportunities for blackgrass control and soil structure repair. But they are not without financial limitations.”

At Waddesdon beans are grown on a variety of soil types, but mainly Grade 3 and 4 clay land with some on lighter clay loams. All the land is winter ploughed. The manager’s advice for anyone growing beans is that establishment is key and it is vital to use seed of quality origin.

He recommends drilling at a rate of about 200kg/ha to achieve 35-40 plants/sq m. He uses the variety Fuego because it is solid and dependable, he says. “The agronomy must be spot on to get a quality product. With beans there is always something to let you down, so you must pay attention to detail and do not be afraid to use a second fungicide.”

Micronized peas

Give peas a chance

A developing market and improved prospects have made spring peas a tempting crop next spring.

Limagrain’s oilseeds and pulse products manager Les Daubney says despite a general perception of peas being a risky crop to grow, the strong demand will leave many seed merchants unable to keep up with demand.

“Prospects at the minute are very good, there’s been a reduction of acreage over the past few years and a particular shortage in micronised peas – to the extent growers are looking abroad. The human consumption market is also buoyant at the minute.

“There are some very good buy-back contracts out there, particularly for marrowfat varieties such as Neon. There’s also been an expansion in the large blue pea varieties such as Crackerjack and Daytona,” he says.

Managing director at Dalmark, John Hill, agreed that this year demand had exceeded supply, forcing prices historically high. “There are some great contracts out there and my advice is be brave and take them. There are too many growers reluctant to commit, instead choosing to see how the winter pans out.

“Prices will be high if you get in there early with a contract and then you’ve obviously got the added bonus of them providing a good break crop.”

Dalmark seeds manager Alan Hendry highlighted although pea stocks were holding out fairly well at the minute, as other spring crop stocks sell out, there’s an increasing possibility that people will turn to peas.