30 August 2002

Stop-start in the rain

After a frustrating, showery

spell, combining is well

behind schedule at Hoe

Hall. Robert Harris reports

JAMES Keith and his arable manager, Simon Brock, decided to drop bread-making wheats a couple of years ago after a run of wet harvests ruined Hagbergs.

"We now grow barn-filling varieties," says Mr Keith. "We are happy to grow a big pile of grain, though we still try to obtain some sort of premium for good quality soft wheat where possible."

It is a decision that has paid off again this year. Wet weather earlier in August delayed wheat combining by several days and, by the time the Claas Lexion 480 set into crops, patches across the 330ha (815 acres) of Claire, Tanker and Napier were beginning to turn grey.

After a four-day run, during which output topped 400t one day, the unsettled weather returned and put a stop to harvest for most of last week, with just one-third of the wheat in the barn.

Another clear slot over the bank holiday weekend saw the combine clear a further one-third of the crop. Overall yield now stands at 10.3t/ha (4.2t/acre), well above the 8.5t/ha (3.4t/acre) budget.

The downside is that most of the crop, except for 200t cut in the hot spell two weeks ago, has had to be dried.

"Early-drilled Claire did well, at about 10.75t/ha, and Tanker nudged 11t/ha, though Napier as a second wheat did about 8-8.5t/ha," says Mr Brock. Some Napier seed was dressed to combat take-all, but there was no significant difference in output.

"We grow very little second wheat, and on this result we shall stick to our plan of growing mainly first wheats and breaks."

Drizzle stopped play last Tuesday, but, with a reasonable forecast for the rest of the week, Mr Brock hoped to wrap up the wheat harvest by this weekend.

That will leave 100ha (247 acres) of winter beans. "They were only barely fit a week ago, and 46ha of Victor winter beans are following on nicely," says Mr Brock.

Good wheat yields are especially welcome this year, given the price. "Its appalling," says Mr Keith. "And with the added cost of drying it does not bear thinking about." About 60% of wheat and all the barley goes through local grain group SEFA.

Two-thirds of the remaining wheat has been split between a Grainfarmers long pool and a Glencore marketing scheme, leaving about 300-400t to sell on the open market.

"I shall not make any more moves until I get a better idea of quality," says Mr Keith. Wheat values were initially pencilled in at £68/t for the 2002/03 season, but these were revised to £60/t recently. Since then, the price has fallen again, with only £55/t available for November movement.

Frustrating

"It is bitterly frustrating, when you see what the $ price in Chicago has been doing lately," says Mr Keith. "The US is experiencing the worst climatic conditions since the 1930s and there is a serious drought in Australia.

"All of my life UK prices have been on the coat-tails of that market. Now, when it goes up, everyone says we have to focus on cheap Black Sea prices. We desperately need some export business to clear what is going to be a big crop. But at what price?"

Mr Keith has been tracking oilseed rape prices closely. Having sold about one-third of the farms oilseed rape tonnage for harvest movement at £140/t some weeks ago, he has let the rest go for the same price. The crop, mainly Recital, yielded well, with about 480t in the barn off 138ha (341 acres).

While traders forecast a continuing strong market due to drought concerns around the world, causing the US to cut its latest global oilseeds forecast by 8.6m tonnes, Mr Keith has also sold about 40% of harvest 2003 oilseed rape for £140/t off the combine. "It was the budget price, so I took it."

Malting barley prices are a different story. Although, like many growers, Mr Keith grows Pearl winter barley, at £70/t ex farm for Oct/Nov coupled with another season of poor yields at 6.5t/ha (2.6t/acre), this is under review.

Half the barley area – about 66ha (163 acres) – is down to Optic spring barley grown specifically for the malting market. Although this has done well this year, yielding 6.25t/ha (2.5t/ha), well above the 5.5t/ha (2.2t/acre) expected, it, like Pearl, is also worth just £70/t for the same slot and has yet to be sold.

This means such specialist varieties may not feature much longer either, even though Mr Keith believes Norfolks soils, weather and growers skills combine to produce some of the best malting barley in the world.

Barley confederation

For that reason, he has joined forces with several other growers to form the Malting Barley Growers Confederation, named at a recent committee meeting at Hoe Hall.

After a well-attended growers meeting (News, Aug 16), the organisation now boasts about 80 members. More are expected to join, with the group seeking to recruit across East Anglia. "We want as many committed malting barley growers to contact us as possible," says Mr Keith. Interested growers should contact Teddy Maufe at branthill.farms@appleonline.net

"We need to create a sustainable future for the UK malting barley industry – for growers, merchants and end users. We need a proper supply line and a price at which we can all exist.

"We have had a very positive start, with some useful comment from the merchants. Now we are planning talks with brewers and maltsters. If they want good quality English assured barley, a strong selling point, then we need to put some structure into the industry.

"We need a commitment to receive reasonable prices through longer-term contracts.

"If the price is screwed down all the time, our tonnage will continue to drop. We may not be able to have much influence on the 2003 crop, but we are laying the seeds for 2004," says Mr Keith. &#42

FARMFACTS

&#8226 Swanton Morley Farms, based near Dereham, Norfolk, is an 890ha (2200 acres) largely arable unit managed as a family partnership by James Keith and his wife Victoria.

&#8226 Arable crops cover 90% of the unit. Wheat grown on medium sandy loam soil goes as feed. Barley goes for malting. Sugar beet is also grown. A further 182ha (450 acres) is contract farmed locally.

&#8226 The farm also runs a 300-sow organic pig herd. A 26-cow suckler herd grazes parkland.

&#8226 A number of cottages are let.

&#8226 Farm staff of 7.