4 September 1999

Yields back on average track

Oilseed rape and barley yields have bounced back to their long-term average. Lucy Stephenson reports on the highs and lows of the 99 harvest.

Oilseed rape

PRICES are in the doldrums but the rape harvest ran smoothly enough with yields up 5% on last year – and back to their national average.

It is not a stunning result, but it could have been worse given the autumn in which many crops were nearly drowned. Martin Farrow of United Oilseeds has done some number crunching on 16,000ha (40,000 acres) to calculate a national average of about 3.4t/ha (1.4t/acre) compared with last years 3.25t/ha (1.3t/acre).

The biggest improving area is Lincolnshire, 12.5% up on last year at 3.6t/ha (1.5t/acre). East Anglia saw a marked improvement too, up 6% to 3.6t/ha (1.5t/acre), reports Mr Farrow.

Quality is good. Grains are generally bigger, oil content is up at a respectable 43-43.5%, and grain moisture is low, he adds.

Most growers had no need to dry. "In the southern part of the country it would have been difficult to have had much better weather at harvest; its been pretty straightforward stuff," comments Mr Farrow.

Hot weather in June and July ripened the crop quickly – but not so fast that the grain dried out before it could ripen properly. As a result the crop still produced a high yield, and there were no green seed problems.

Thats the national picture; but between farms and regions theres wide variation in yield. Shropshire grower Arthur Hill expects 3.5t/ha (1.4t/acre) on two sites 18 miles apart. This year yield was 3t/ha (1.2t/acre) on one and 4.2t/ha (1.7t/acre) on the other. He puts the variation down to difficult sowing conditions on the wet seedbeds. "Its disappointing but not unexpected."

Yield was well down on some farms despite favourably bright and breezy conditions at flowering; this year rain at the beginning of the season accounts for most of the damage. "The wet autumn restricted root development. It went quite dry suddenly in May so the crops came under stress, knocking a week to 10 days off flowering," says NIABs Simon Kightley.

Sulphur worries

He suggests that sulphur deficiency may also be a factor on some farms. "We had reports of poor pod formation and fill, although the main symptom – pale yellow flowers – wasnt reported. But we have had two wet years in a row now so I cant help wondering whether sulphur deficiency is developing. We put a minimum of 30kgS/ha onto our trial plots."

Well down on a five-year average of 3.5t/ha (1.4t/acre), Apex and Pronto sown on unploughed land following set-aside yielded just 2.4t/ha (1t/acre) for Cambridgeshire grower John Parish. "There was nothing to take the moisture out of the soil on the set-aside over the summer so it flooded quickly in the autumn and stopped the crop growing," he says.

Surrey grower Richard Kents yields were watered down from the five-year average of 4t/ha (1.6t/acre) to 2.9t/ha (1.2t/acre). This year he grew two varieties, Capricorn and Synergy. Capricorn isnt on the recommended list but it suits heavier land, stands well and has large pods and seed, he says.

Establishment was fairly good, but rain through October compacted the soil surface – and there were no frosts in winter to open it up again, he explains. Adverse weather continued through the season; the crop suffered moisture stress at stem extension, and storms later on pushed thicker crops over.

Somerset grower Stuart Pow is pleased with 3.8t/ha (1.5t/acre) from Apex and Lipton – its well above his 3.2t/ha (1.3t/acre) average. "The crop always looked strong. We put on more sulphur this year – 50kgS/ha, and there was more sunlight in May and June. The flowering period was long because it wasnt terribly warm; there was good pod set and a good filling period."

However, Mr Pow is less pleased with restored hybrid Pronto. Yield was higher at 4.1t/ha (1.7t/acre), but this was not enough to pay for the extra costs of growing the variety, he says. Theres no doubt that the biggest party pooper this year is the £105/t price tag: "Any extra yield is worth very little."

Pronto returned 3.5t/ha (1.4t/acre) for North Yorkshire grower Eric Hardwick – below the farm average of 3.7t/ha (1.5t/acre) which takes in bigger yields from Apex. But without the vigour of the variety it could have been worse.

"I ought to be happy with it given the growing conditions. It went in at the end of September so didnt establish well but it made up a lot of lost ground in spring," he says.

In terms of prices theres not much hope for upward price movement – but it wont go down too far either, says Mr Farrow. For those storing grain the price carry from August to November is a reasonable £9-10/t, he adds.

But Dalgety trader Kevin Bantick cautions that holding grain back in store may not be the right thing to do. The whole of Europe has a similar pattern but eventually it will come onto the market, he says. "Id advise selling pre-Christmas even if its for movement later than that. Prices may go down in the New Year because of competition from the Australian rape crop."

Barley

WINTER barley was harvested before rain hailed an early end to the summer. But the shine of a good harvest with yields up 10% on last year has been spoilt by very low grain nitrogen levels in malting samples.

First, the good news on yield and bushel weight. Both are up on last year with Allied Grain estimating a national average of 7.4t/ha. But the range is wide – from 4.9t/ha (2t/acre) to a towering 8.6t/ha (3.5t/acre). NIAB yields are back up to just over their long-term average of 7.98t/ha, at 8t/ha (3.2t/acre).

Dalgetys David Neale also confirms that yields are up on last year by 10% at 0.6-1.2t/ha (0.25-0.5t/acre). However, as yields were down by the same percentage last last year it puts the winter barley crop – much like oilseed rape – back on an average track.

Looking back at the season, Allieds Ivan Bishop reckons frequent rains early on encouraged the crop to tiller, contributing to this years better yield. Crops didnt tiller too thickly however, so lodging wasnt a problem for most. The spring rain helping to swell bushel weights to over 63kg/hl for varieties, such as Fanfare.

The bad news is grain N which is down – and far too low for malting, according to Allied. Morley Research Centre report an average of 1.4% compared with 1.6% last year, despite a top up of 15kg/ha of N in anticipation of lower grain nitrogen.

"This year its been all low-N barleys. Some Fanfare with grain N lower than 1.55N has gone for feed because its dormancy problem makes it unsuitable for use in ales," reports Mr Bishop.

The market is shifting towards lager, rather than traditional ales, which require more mid-range grain N levels. Yet malting varieties have been bred for low nitrogen and although growers have made a conscious effort to get their grain N up, its made very little difference because of the seasons, points out Mr Bishop. "Increased tillering tends to dilute the nitrogen in the plant."

Dalgety is less worried about the low grain N: "Of the barley crop that went into the ground, 75% of varieties had malting potential. Theres wide variation in samples, ranging from less than 1.4N to 1.8N; we should still see enough to satisfy malting demand," says the companys Trevor Harriman.

Shropshire grower Arthur Hill is pleased with both his crops of Regina, which yielded 6.2t/ha (2.5t/acre) on one site and 7.2t/ha (2.9t/acre) on the other. Both sites average 6.2t/ha (2.5t/acre). Quality is good too: bushel weights are 64-70kg/hl and his grain N is mid to high at 1.65-1.81N. "We treated it as feed and gave it 151kgN/ha at the end of March," he says.

Rust spots

Mildew was less of a problem than usual this year; only moderate levels were present, says NIABs Bill Handley. The only disease to pose any real threat was brown rust. "It came on remarkably early – in May, and was most widespread and most severe in the east," he says. Growers in the south and west suffered high levels of rhynchosporium, but it wasnt a problem elsewhere. Despite symptoms over the winter net blotch didnt develop into a problem in most crops.

However, Somerset grower Stuart Pow was very disappointed with his Regina. Yield of 6.2t/ha (2.5t/acre) compares poorly with the average of 6.7t/ha (2.7t/acre). Bushel weight was also well down, at 62kg/hl.

Rain played havoc with his spray programme. "We couldnt get the sprays on at the right time. Because we couldnt apply any growth regulator in time we had to cut back on nitrogen. We had problems with slugs in the autumn. We struggled with net blotch, and rhynchosporium seemed impossible to control," he explains.

But June rains were welcome on lighter soils where they kept the crops going; not enough to flatten them but enough to fill the grain. Cambridgeshire grower John Parishs seed crop of Regina yielded 8-8.25t/ha (3.2-3.3t/acre) on light sandy soil.

"Weve never seen anything like it – our five-year average is 7t/ha (2.8t/acre). We used a strobilurin on the crop for the first time this year. It seems to have kept it quite clean and extended the grain filling period," he says.

Gleam and Fanfare yielded 6.2t/ha (2.5t/acre) for Surrey grower Richard Kent. "This is better than the 5.6t/ha (2.25t/acre) Id expect on that sandy loam soil. Its been quite a bad year for brown rust and we had to give it a late spray. But its all been passed for seed and Im pleased with it."

Despite lower yield, North Yorkshire grower Eric Hardwick is pleased with his crop of Halcyon. Wet weather delayed drilling so there was less time for it to tiller well, but grains are bold: bushel weight is 71kg/hl. "Grain nitrogen is low at 1.5N. We had little disease this year. Its the best quality sample Ive ever had – but the lowest yield."

&#8226 Look out for the Crops wheat harvest overview in September 18.

Sprouting

Sprouting and pre-germination in wheat and spring barley are a major problem in the southern half of the country. Only half the spring barley crop made it in to stores before the downpours. All many could do was watch as sprouting took place in both crops, says Allied Grains Ivan Bishop.

Spring crops in the south were ripening just before the wet spell in August, and more susceptible to sprouting than later crops in the north, points out NIABs Bill Handley.

Many crops in the east, south and midlands are poor quality and some will end up as feed, confirms Dalgetys Trevor Harriman. Blending may allow some grain to be rescued, he adds. It makes life more difficult for the traders – but it also makes the market more tradeable.