The Scott family drilled almost 500 acres of spring barley this year – their biggest area of the crop ever. But with a lot riding on the success of the crop, it’s proved a real rollercoaster of a growing season.

The main factors behind the moments of serious anxiety about the potential performance of the 188ha (464 acres) of spring-sown Optic were the result of poor sowing conditions compounded by poorer seedling vigour – a legacy from last year’s growing conditions.

“Around 90% of our spring barley is grown on contract, sold primarily to Scotgrain and Frontier,” says John Scott.

“We have a spread of contracts this year which should average around £170/t. The contracts range from £190/t for below 1.45% N £185 for below 1.55% and £180 for below 1.65% N.”

“We had a wet March and April and sowing was late and in far from ideal conditions. Anything sown slightly deep struggled to come through and there was a while when it seemed nothing was growing,” says John’s father, James.

Back on track

“It looked a downright disaster for a spell, then the crops seemed to come away unexpectedly well. Then just when we thought things were back on track the cold dry weather in May slowed everything down and things looked pretty worrying again.

“In recent weeks, though, I walked the crops again and they looked surprisingly well. The heads look quite big but a lot of secondary tillers have come up and these might prove problematic at harvest,” he says.

After such a difficult growing season, James and John are cautious about predicting yields. They hope to see about 3.5t/acre for wheat 3t/acre for winter barley and 2.3-2.5t/ha for spring barley.

James and John

Ploughing up additional grass has put pressure on stocking rates and, while the Scotts’ switch to high yielding grass varieties in recent years should have helped to buffer this, they were also affected by slow grass growth due to the exceptionally cool, dry May.

Along with their spring barley, aimed at the malting market, the Scotts are growing 35 acres of Alchemy wheat and 22 acres of Pelican winter barley along with 15 acres of oats with a further 104 acres rented out for potatoes.

The cold, dry conditions during May, June and July mean disease pressure has been relatively low, but it looks likely harvest will start about 10 days later than usual this year, probably around 6 August.

One consequence of a late start to the harvest may be additional drying costs as a result of heavier dew in the mornings and damp coming in earlier in the evenings.

Investment

At the moment the Scotts don’t have their own drier but, with an increasing arable acreage, that may be an investment they will consider.

“We are probably closer now than we have ever been to buying a drier and, if cashflow allows, we may look at doing that in the next year or two,” says John. But even with an increasing arable acreage, it’s hard to justify investing in more arable kit. “We wouldn’t rule out buying a combine completely, but it would have to be on a shared, partnership basis with other farmers in the area.”

One advantage of using contractors is that the Scotts can be crystal clear on their fixed costs. Excluding harvest and drying costs so far this year these have tallied up to £151.38/ha for wheat and £127.38/ha for spring barley.

Variable costs, too, have come under scrutiny. Fertiliser prices have soared from £160/t last year to £355/t this year for fertiliser ordered in May, says John. “Previously we have taken delivery of fertiliser in July/August and paid in October but this year we took the decision to go for delivery in June and pay in July. That seems to have the right decision as prices continued to rise but the need to make earlier payment has had quite an impact on cashflow.”

However, some much-needed investment has proved posssible. The Scotts will soon be taking delivery of a new JCB 536-70 Agri Super Loadall, after encountering problems with the existing four-year-old machine, which averages 1000 hours a year. The capital outlay to trade-in and purchase the new Loadall was £25,000, which will be paid for via a three-year finance deal with Agco Finance.