21 June 2002

Rain perks up the grain

LAST month, or to be precise, five weeks ago, I was bemoaning the fact that crops were looking stressed due to lack of rainfall.

The combined rainfall for March and April had amounted to no more than 74.8mm (2.9in) during which time only 21 days had measurable rainfall above 0.1mm.

May has produced a further 47.4mm (1.9in), which was nearer the 40-year mean figure and to June 13 a further 24.8mm (0.9in). The year to date figure amounts to no more than 228.6mm (9in), which for 24 weeks is not a lot. That compares to last year when a total of 323.5mm (12.7in) of rain fell in the same period.

What has this done for the crops? The cereals are certainly looking happier with both barley and wheat out in full ear and flag leaves looking less stressed. Disease pressure has increased and we have applied a fungicide to all wheat at full-ear emergence. Aphids, too, are about and have been sprayed on the only field of second wheat with symptoms of BYDV. More magnesium sulphate has been applied to stave off deficiencies and we shall be considering a dose of liquid urea post-flowering to boost grain protein on the Malacca milling wheat in the next week or two.

We are suffering this year from cutbacks in our casual labour. The cereals have been walked for several years now by a lady from the village rouging wild oats, blackgrass and anything else that dared to rear its head above the crop canopy but this can no longer be justified under present output prices. As a consequence, crops are looking a little tatty which will not affect our gross margin, but nonetheless offends the eye.

When prices for new crop grain are below £60/t at harvest pride comes before a fall and I just hope that the visitors on the several farm walks we have booked over the next few weeks will be as understanding as our accountants.

The sugar beet is growing better now and weed control has been good but as to meeting across the rows by Norfolk Show week I fear we shall fail to qualify. Deer have joined the rabbits to ravage one particular headland and even regular applications of fairly viscous pig slurry fails to control their appetite.

Peas are growing well moving from flowering to early pod initiation and we have had to control pea moth larvae and aphids as well as applying a fungicide and manganese sulphate over the last week or two. The vine is not as high as I would have liked and we are struggling to control pigeons on the three fields spaced generously across the farm.

The oilseed rape still appears free from disease although the recent spell of wet weather is conducive to the spread of alternaria which if not controlled could put a severe dent in our five-year rape yield of 3.9t/ha (1.6t/acre). All in all we look like having an average year provided we avoid the drought conditions of late June/ early July experienced last year.

Barley letter

I am indebted to Jonathan Arnold, malting barley buyer from Robin Appel (Letters, May 24). Clearly, I fail to come up to his ideal as a Maris Otter grower, neither being one of "the right people" or farming on "the right ground". Our agronomy comes in for a certain amount of criticism, too.

We grew Maris Otter winter barley for three years on contract to Gowlett Grain Ltd of Great Abingdon, near Cambridge, a specialist in malting barley and a competitor of Robin Appel.

In the first year (1998), we averaged 5.85t/ha (2.3t/acre) at a nitrogen value in excess of 1.6, but even so were paid a premium of £25/t. The gross margin was £633/ha (£256/acre) and the fungicide costs £66/ha (£26.72/acre), the contract price for barley below 1.5 nitrogen was £45/t over feed.

In 1999, yield went up to 5.95t/ha (2.4t/acre) with a nitrogen value between 1.56 and 1.6 commanding a premium of £40/t. Maximum premium on this contract was again £45/t for nitrogen of 1.5 or below. That year the gross margin shot up to £800/ha (£324/acre) but fungicide costs remained at £66/ha.

In the harvest of 2000, the contract terms had deteriorated, "the known end-user" so highly acclaimed by Mr Arnold had decided to knock nearly 18% off his premium falling to £37 from £45/t.

Our yield went up to 6.6t/ha (2.67t/acre) but nitrogen levels rocketed to more than 1.8 and screenings to nearly 20%. We had done nothing different to the year before. Fungicide costs had in fact risen to £69/ha (£27.93/acre) and the gross margin slumped to £624/ha (£252/acre).

Based on these results and the falling demand by specialist brewers for Maris Otter and their reluctance to pay a decent price, is it little wonder that we have made the switch to Pearl?

The final point made by Mr Arnold is that "had the barley achieved the correct grade Maris Otter would have out-performed Pearl". Wrong! Pearl yielded 8.67t/ha (3.5t/acre) at £73/t before levies and weighbridge charges to gross £632.91/ha (£256/acre).

Maris Otter

Taking our average yield for Maris Otter over three years at 6.13t/ha (2.48t/acre) and adding the contract full premium to the feed barley price to make £102/t the output would have been £625.26/ha (£253/acre).

Even allowing for similar variable costs – and it is a brave man who budgets to use less inputs especially fungicides for a 40-year-old variety like Maris Otter – the balance is in favour of Pearl.

The prospect of producing the top specification are fraught with doubt and the risk too great. Sorry, Mr Arnold, but perhaps you should give your southern growers the facts. &#42

Pea protection: Our crop at Easton Lodge needed treatment against pea moth and aphids. We used the opportunity to apply fungicide and manganese sulphate at the beginning of this month.