In a world where wheat is so scarce, it is hard to fathom why it is such an unwanted commodity at so many ports and mills.
Lorry loads of wheat are being rejected and redirected to more welcoming homes. This year has been a harvest to forget, but for some the pain is lingering. Many farmers are facing large claims for low bushel weight as their wheat is delivered to mills.
In past years, low bushel weight was penalised with a £1kg/hl or £1.50kg/hl deduction below that agreed in the contract. This year, farmers are facing a claims scale that could have been devised by Duckworth-Lewis (for those who don’t follow cricket, that’s a scoring formula), such is its seeming complexity. It starts at £1/kg deduction below 72kg/hl and escalates in some cases to £5/kg below 60kg/hl. This means wheat with a bushel weight in the mid-50s may be subject to a staggering £65/t deduction.
I accept the merchants have no contractual obligation to accept delivery of this low bushel weight wheat. And the size of the claims may be a deterrent because they would rather not accept it. But can these penalties be justified?
Farming media, forums and the Twitterati are awash with tales of the “great specific grain weight robbery”. Some postings complain that air-assisted spear sampling methods at intake are more likely to draw the lightest grains first. Others cite scientific work undertaken at Queen’s University in Belfast, which found that low bushel weight had no detrimental impact on the feed value of wheat down to 60kg/hl (although this may not be true of high-density rations). And many are frustrated by discrepancies between farm and mill test results.
Whether or not these jibes are founded, farmers also need to take responsibility. Eavesdropping on groups of farmers talking about grain contracts, you could be forgiven for thinking that the farmer is the customer, such is the reaction to the behaviour of millers and merchant. Those merchants or millers of wheat are the customer. Therefore if the wheat is below contractual specification, it is their prerogative to decide if they proceed with the contract and purchase the wheat.
And while merchants have a duty to match wheat with the most suitable home, farmers must have a much greater knowledge of the quality of the wheat being sold. Perverse as it may sound, 68kg/hl wheat that has been over a dresser may be very different from 68kg/hl wheat that has been pulled straight out of the shed.
And we can all be guilty of myopia. I cannot be alone in having wheat that has tested better at intake than I anticipated when it left the farm.
I understand that mills don’t want millions of tonnes of low bushel weight wheat. And the impact of low specific weight will depend on its destination. With extraction rates for flour more heavily influenced by bushel weight than energy levels for animal feed, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. But the pain would be easier to stomach if two simple rules were applied.
First, if there is a cost to the mill for wheat delivered below the contractual bushel weight, then there must be a benefit above that figure and this should be rewarded as with the oilseed contracts.
Second, there should be transparency to validate the claims. In years of high prices such as this, one can’t help but feel that some merchants have dreamt up the largest palatable deduction from that season’s delivered wheat value. Now, that is a claim.
Ian Pigott farms 700ha in Hertfordshire. The farm is a LEAF demonstration unit, with 130ha of organic arable. Ian is also the founder of Open Farm Sunday.