If you are considering growing wheat for the slowly emerging bioethanol market, then Yorkshire or Lincolnshire appear well suited to the crop.

Analysis of nearly 10,000 wheat samples from Centaur Grain clients last harvest found these two areas were the best for starch production, a key requirement in the ethanol production process.

“Theoretically, the further north the location, the cooler and longer the grain-fill period, which increases starch deposition relative to the amount of nitrogen taken up,” says Velcourt’s Keith Norman, who compiled the survey findings. In contrast, starch production was significantly lower in Buckinghamshire, Essex, Sussex and parts of the midlands.

Variety

But location is not the only factor. “Variety has an important part to play and there’s also an inverse relationship between starch content and grain protein,” he says.

“Soils with high yield potential that are moisture retentive are likely to give lowest protein contents and, therefore, highest alcohol yields.

“Organic or peaty soils will tend to give high protein levels and low alcohol yields.” Maximising physical yield is, therefore, crucial and he reckons growers should aim for at least 10t/ha.

The survey found that varieties like Brompton, Glasgow and Access gave particularly high starch contents, while Hereward and Malacca were comparatively low. “It is not clear how growers can manipulate varieties to give higher starch contents, but, along with Bayer CropScience, we’re carrying out a three-year project to investigate this,” says Mr Norman.

Bulk commodity production is the ethos of Lincolnshire grower Adrian Whitehead, who manages 2400ha on behalf of Velcourt, north of Sleaford. “We’re under no illusions we’re a commodity producer. The bulk of our grain either goes into feed or is exported.”

This season all of his oilseed rape crop will be sold on energy contracts and he has also signed up 20% of his wheat for four years to Centaur’s starch contract, which provides a premium price based on grain starch content above 60%.

“We haven’t seen the sort of prices they’re offering for the past four or five years and there is no guarantee we will see them [on the open market] in the next five.”

Greater confidence

Centaur’s Richard Jenner says the contract provides growers close to the £80m Immingham bioethanol plant with greater confidence about the longer-term financial returns from at least a proportion of their wheat crop, in an increasingly volatile market.

He acknowledges there is a danger the biofuel market could become geographically split, but says there are plenty of opportunities for wheat and oilseed rape growers in the south. “Generally, you will need to be close to blending facilities or sites that can export the raw material.”

*Biofuel crops will be demonstrated within the Velcourt area at this year’s Cereals Event, including oilseed rape, high starch wheat, high sugar grass, miscanthus, willow and sugar beet. Experts will be available to answer growers’ questions.

DEMAND CREATING ROTATION CHALLENGES

Biofuel demand is creating a number of rotational challenges as growers expand wheat and oilseed rape area at the expense of break crops.

Monsanto’s Robert Plaice says improved output per unit area is the way forward, rather than massive expansion of the area, which puts pressure on rotations.

Club root is a particular concern in tighter oilseed rape rotations, says Mr Norman, who is beginning a DEFRA/HGCA-funded project with HRI to see what problems are building up under different length rape rotations. “We need to know why we’re getting a yield loss of roughly 1t/ha compared with virgin rape land.”

Bayer CropScience’s Chris Cooksley agrees soil-borne diseases are a bigger threat than foliar diseases in closer rotations, putting more importance on seed treatments. “But because rapeseed is so small, it can be difficult to load enough active ingredient on to it to give sufficient longevity.”

Pelleting the seed in a similar way to sugar beet seed is one potential solution and Monsanto is trialling some new treatments, Mr Plaice adds. “There’s limited potential to breed in club root resistance, so we need tolerance or cultural control.”

Mr Cooksley believes there is much more potential to squeeze an extra 1t/ha out of oilseed rape yields, but for many it will require a change of mindset. “If you still regard oilseed rape as a break crop and are happy to just autocast it behind the combine, you’re not going to get 5t/ha crops.”