Spring wheat harvest©FLPA Rex

Milling wheat growers enjoyed high yields and premiums last harvest, which may encourage a greater number to target the milling market in 2015.

Although it may be too late to change winter cropping decisions, there is still a window to drill later winter varieties, as well as potentially higher quality spring options.

See also: Spring wheat could be a real breadwinner

According to The Andersons Centre’s early-bird survey, growers plan to drill 5% less wheat this year, at 1.83m hectares. However, anecdotally, milling wheat and spring wheat could make up a larger proportion of this overall area.

“With resistant blackgrass and issues over the availability of chemicals for weed control going forward, what we really need are more spring wheats,” says Ian Ashbridge, associate at consultant Bidwells.

“Spring wheats yield much better than they used to, and with a shorter growing period they cost less to produce,” he adds.

“If you choose a hard milling variety like Mulika you should get a milling premium – it has the potential to deliver a better gross margin than a conventional winter wheat,” says Mr Ashbridge.

Many winter wheats – like Xi19, Gallant and Skyfall – can be drilled as late as February, while Belepi, along with true spring varieties such as Mulika, Alderon and Willow, can be drilled into April.

However, it is important that growers manage their spring wheats as carefully as winter crops.

“You may have less money invested in the crop, but you still need to treat it like a high-value cash crop. For years it has been all about winter wheat and oilseed rape; there needs to be an attitude change towards spring wheat – it really has a lot to offer,” he adds.

Seed prices are some £20/t cheaper than this time last year, ranging from about £380/t to £395/t, depending on variety.

Supplies are ample for the demand, which is starting to pick up, says Chris Haydock, seed business manager at Anglia Farmers. “Most interest is in Mulika and Belepi, but there seems to be quite a lot of seed around,” he adds.

According to Graham Redman, author of the John Nix Pocketbook, spring wheat is likely to return a gross margin of £497/ha in 2015, based on variable costs of £371/ha, a forecast price of £151/t and an average yield of 5.75t/ha.

This would place it fifth in the ranking of spring crops. Red wheat varieties, which command a higher premium, are forecast to have a gross margin of £569/ha, but can usually only be grown on contract.

However, with very few milling contracts for 2015 available, it is too early to predict likely prices, says Nick Coe, head of milling wheat trading at Frontier.

“This year, full-spec Group 1 varieties have been fetching record highs of up to £55/t over feed wheat, driven by the shortfall in quality and strong export demand,” he says.

“But every year is different, so premiums will not necessarily be the same for harvest 2015 – it will all depend on what quality we get,” Mr Coe adds.

Spring milling wheat can command a premium over winter varieties, as it tends to have higher protein levels.

“Group 2 varieties typically trade at a £5 discount to Group 1s, but due to the low protein contents this season that has narrowed to £1-3/t, depending on quality,” he says.

However, in the past year or two the advent of better winter milling varieties has slightly undermined end-user demand for springs, says Apex agronomist John Tunaley.

“A couple of years ago my clients grew a lot of spring wheat, but we haven’t got so much now. In my opinion the only variety is Mulika, as it’s robust, commands a full milling premium, and is easy to grow,” he says.

However, if growers have blackgrass, spring wheat doesn’t compete as well as spring barley.

Spring crops are growing in popularity due to the European Union’s three-crop rule and improved weed control, adds Mr Tunaley.

“The mood is swinging away from muddling in wheat late in the autumn. If you’re growing spring wheat, it really wants to be drilled in February for best results – later than that and spring barley’s versatility comes into its own,” he says.