7 October 2000

Yields dip but quality survives

THE latest, slowest and most frustrating for a decade. Thats how this years wheat harvest may well be remembered. Combines started, stopped and started again across the country as rains interrupted the long struggle to gather in the seasons corn.

But total wheat tonnage will be up – Banks Agriculture estimate a figure of 16.37m tonnes. Area, not yield, is the reason behind the increase following a 13% rise in wheat sowings to 2.11m ha last autumn.

Quality is the great success story of this years harvest, not least because UK grain outstripped the French.

HGCA figures confirm the result, with wheat quality generally better than the five-year average: hagberg is 5% up on the five-year average for Group 1 varieties thanks to sunshine and little rain at the crucial stage of harvest. But protein averages are down – probably due to the record levels of rainfall in April, which prevented growers from putting nitrogen fertiliser on at the right time, reckons HGCAs Rupert Somerscales. Specific weights (see table) are "very respectable" – in the high 70s, similar to last year.

"Regional differences are slight but overall, eastern counties have the best results, and northern counties, the lowest, although data from north-east England and Scotland is still to come," says Mr Somerscales.

Unfortunately yields in many regions could not meet last years record-breaking performance. The national average is 7.78t/ha (3.15t/acre) but this is likely to fall as results from rain-struck counties in the north and Scotland, where wheat is still waiting to be cut, eventually pour in.

NIABs Richard Fenwick blames the lack of sunshine in June and July. "If only we had received more radiation then, we could have been seeing a tonne extra in national average yields," he says.

Regionally, yields appear better from the north compared to the south of England, reports HGCAs Gerald Mason.

But variations in yields may not be just due to regional or climate variations. The percentages of different varieties grown may also have affected figures, as the latest NIAB survey data suggests.

Biggest surprises were Rialto which yielded 3% below the five-year average and Riband, up 4% despite its susceptibility to septoria. Meanwhile Genghis gave a disastrous performance – down 5%.

However, despite the high quality crop, millers are reporting poorer baking characteristics which is affecting gluten, compared with last year. "Fewer of the Group 2 varieties in particular are meeting the full spec for breadmaking," explains Mr Whitlock. In the future, this is likely to lead to an increase in the area of Group 1s and 3s grown, he predicts.

Diseases in many areas were up on last year thanks to a wet spring. But not at Morley Research Centre, where farm manager Andrew Thurston used a full three-spray fungicide programme on his 112ha of wheat to keep eyespot and septoria at bay. "We used both strobs and triazoles and about 5% of our straws were green at harvest – but this is not as bad as two years ago," he says.

First wheats performed well and on a par with the five-year average. Best performer was Claire with 9.9t/ha, grown following oilseed rape. Other varieties (Consort, Madrigal and Riband) brought the average down to 9.4t/ha. But second wheats were disappointing, notes Mr Thurston.

Robert Bull, farm manager at ADAS Bridgets, also paid the price of using strobilurin chemistry. "Amistar applied in June led to some very green trash which our combines didnt like," complains Mr Bull. However, yields from first wheats – Soissons and Malacca and second wheat, Consort, were up by half-a-tonne on their five-year average. "I put our success down to introducing a forage break crop and regular applications of farmyard manure within the rotation," says Mr Bull.

Disease also threatened yields. Take-all pulled Malacca down to 7.7t/ha on some fields, while threshold levels of eyespot went unnoticed in one field, bringing yields down to 6t/ha.

Soissons came out on top for specific weight with an average of 81kg/hl and Malacca and Consort were a reasonable 78 and 76 respectively.

Protein contents however, were disappointing. "Proteins will not be high enough to get the price I was hoping for; weve sold through a co-operative so I will just have to wait and see what we get," says Mr Bull.

Soil compaction put the lid on yield potential at ADAS Rosemaund. Wheat yields dipped 5% below their three-year average. "Our heavy clay loams are continuously under trials, so getting the subsoiler in is difficult," explains farm manager John Hodge.

Weeds also limited yields – particularly cleavers and wild oats. Consort, Equinox and Savannah were grown on 55ha: "Our wheat never looks that special but protein was down to 9% which was a real disappointment," says Mr Hodge.

Moisture at harvest has been a headache on many farms, as Sue Ogilvy, site manager at ADAS High Mowthorpe, knows only too well. "Harvest was patchy. We were taking high moistures, often over 22% to maintain the quality. Then we had to dry down to 13% and with the oil crisis it was touch and go," she says.

Yields, however, were a pleasant surprise for Ms Ogilvy, with Hereward, Avalon, Riband and Claire averaging 8.45t/ha. Top yielder was Claire with 10.6t/ha.

Limitations of the blow-away sands at ADAS Gleadthorpe led farm manger Peter Blundell to consider a change in variety tactics after this years harvest. Rialto has been grown on 35ha for several years and this year it averaged 6.6t/ha – unspectacular, but similar to their five-year average. "What we really want is a barn filler because what we dont sell goes to feed our chickens, so we are trying out Equinox this year as it likes the sand and should yield better," explains Mr Blundell.

Scottish worries

Sprouting is the main concern for many in Scotland growing soft wheats for the distilling market. And, as rain continues to stop the combines, many growers are getting increasingly concerned. Not least because in many areas, a third of the spring barley and nearly all of the spring oats still await cutting – as well as some wheat, as Crops goes to press.

David Jack, growing Consort on his 202ha mixed farm in Inverurie, central Aberdeenshire, is one such concerned grower. "I cant ever remember a harvest so late. We are at least 10 days behind and moistures are still averaging 27%. The only consolation is that the crops are standing well and ripening nicely. If we can get in before the last week in September we can avoid any sprouting and quality should be good," says Mr Jack optimistically.

Grain prices are low, but with poorer grain quality from much of the Continent and lower production from eastern Europe as a result of severe drought, there is some market optimism in the air. In particular recent details published on the French crop suggest that hagbergs are significantly depressed – enough to hinder traditional sales in North Africa and elsewhere.

Despite this, wheat director of Banks, Richard Whitlock, believes prices will stay flat. "Our only hope is if the euro weakens against the dollar rendering the American market more expensive; that will give us a greater chance of competing," he says.