17 October 1998

TRIPLE WHAMMY

Grey skies, flat crops and a wet harvest have washed away any high hopes from the Scottish harvest. Gilly Johnson reports.

COULD it be the worst cereal harvest in living memory for Scotland?Although 1985 was just as disastrously wet, at least the markets were good. But with stories of some barley samples failing to reach even the £50/t mark, this season is one that growers would prefer to forget.

As a triple whammy – on price, yield and quality – for many hard-pressed Scottish producers this is the toughest harvest ever. Add in the practical impossibility of taking a combine through when faced with continual wet weather, and the picture becomes even more depressing.

There were two critical weather windows when growers could have had a reasonable run at harvesting: the last four days in August, and a dry spell in mid-September. But for northern growers the first break in the clouds came too early – crops were not fit. Then in mid-September, much heavy land remained too wet to take the weight of the combine.

At the end of September the rain stopped in most places, but lingering fog kept the air damp, and crops were unable to dry out. Problems have been compounded, say some growers, due to inaccurate weather forecasts this summer.

Heavy going

But the difficulties started over a year ago, suggests East Lothian producer James Logan. The combination of a wet June in 1997 and a warm winter, without frost cracking, has undermined soil structure on his farm at Athelstaneford Mains, North Berwick. That meant it only took a small amount of rain to top up the soil moisture content and make for difficult going with the combine.

"Without winter weathering, the soil has slumped. Now were trying to drill, and the heavy land is ploughing up very wet."

At least Mr Logan has managed to finish combining – and earlier than in the wet summer in 1985, when the combine was going until 4 Oct. As Crops went to press, many fields had not been harvested in the north-east. "In our region, there could be between 10-15% of the spring barley still out there," said Ian Keith, director of Allied Grain (Scotland), at Crimond, north of Aberdeen. With harvest dragging on, hope is evaporating.

National yield estimates from the Scottish Office are still being put together. It is likely that initial forecasts of about 4.7t/ha (38cwt/acre) for spring barley, under 6t/ha (48cwt/acre) for winter barley and 7.6t/ha (3t/acre) for winter wheat could be revised downwards in the face of continuing delays. When the national total is worked out, the trade is expecting the 1998 harvest to be potentially 10% short.

Best yields are from early harvested crops in the south-east. But even here, tonnages are about 10% light. Mr Logan reports the worst result from the winter barley, "an out and out disaster", with high screenings (17-18%) and low bushel weights.

Winter barley yields are the worst seen for five years, says Dr David Cranstoun of the SAC. He cites lack of sun from April onwards as the main culprit. Average bushel weights are about 61kg/hl, though there are reports of some 40kg/hl samples, which are only finding buyers at a discount.

"Winter barley failed to do well in all areas, with the six-rows performing particularly badly," he says. "There was some lodging but lack of yield was the main problem."

Many growers were trying out the new winter malting barley varieties, but failed to hit the quality target. "Its hard to make margins appear presentable on such yields of feed quality." Dr Cranstoun is expecting a 20% decline in the area down to winter barley this autumn as a result. Screenings on Regina and Melanie were up at 24%, over a 2.5mm screen – wider than the English standard of 2.25mm.

The Scottish spring barleys, traditionally the mainstay of the malting market, also have quality problems. "Only 25-30% of the malting barley samples in Aberdeenshire have got through without rejections," says Mr Keith of Allied Grain. "Nitrogens are about 0.15% higher and the screenings are exceptionally high. In the south of Scotland, malting quality is better."

Spring barley Chariot has suffered badly with screenings, particularly in the Grampians, says Dr Cranstoun. Landlord has also seen problems, but Optic and Prisma have done relatively well. "The spring barley crop may have died off prematurely this year. And net blotch was bad." Maltsters are sourcing barley from England to replace Scottish supplies.

Hagbergs down

Wheat, mainly Riband for distilling, features in the south of Scotland. Where crops were harvested early, yields are not too far adrift from the average. And bushel weights are also reasonable, at between 70-74kg/hl. But hagbergs are shot following the start of sprouting on most crops combined later than the beginning of September.

Widespread lodging has occurred, despite Ribands stiff-strawed credentials. This is a result of footrots and the wet weather, says Dr Cranstoun.

In East Lothian, Mr Logan has seen best results from the later-drilled wheat on good draining soil following potatoes. The early sown wheat on heavy land succumbed to basal stem diseases, lodged, and yields suffered.

Harvesting was a case of taking the combine through for an hour or two as soon as the land dried sufficiently – even if that meant a 4pm start. Most of the wheat was in at between 25-26% moisture.

Following concern about the impact of the disastrous Scottish harvest on farm incomes and cash flow, the National Farmers Union of Scotland, together with UKASTA, have lobbied for advance payments of IACS cheques in Scotland. Payments will be made two months earlier, says the Scottish Office. There is also a derogation on the 15% moisture content standard for intervention.

lEast Lothian grower James Logan is speaking at the Crops Conference in Perth on 10 Nov.