What to consider when choosing next year’s winter crops

Farmers are being advised to consider crops that will set them up for the next few years, rather than just focussing on those giving the highest returns in the coming season.

Not only does this involve looking at gross margins for 2018-19, but also choosing crops which have a suitable end market, can help tackle the weed burden and work within the rotation.

Rotations should be considered in terms of the economics and agronomics of the whole farm, advises Graham Redman, author of the John Nix Pocketbook.

See also: Kent grower’s second wheat crop measures up to first

“It’s not just about the profitability of one hectare. Think about soil health, maintaining its productivity, as well as how you plan to keep soil organic matter levels up for water retention.”


A wheat ear

© Tim Scrivener

While rotations must be sustainable, current market conditions give farmers an opportunity to make the most of their principal cash crop – wheat, says Ian Ashbridge, partner at Bidwells.

The 2018-19 season is due to be the first in four years when global wheat consumption outstrips production, alongside gradual eroding of stocks.

“If you can dependably grow a second wheat, look at doing that rather than going straight into winter barley or a spring cereal.”

Will Gemmill, national head of farming at Strutt & Parker, says the area of second wheat has marginally declined.

“This is purely because of increased blackgrass issues. Farmers have also looked at more spring cropping and later drilling of wheat.”

However, first wheats will continue to be the mainstay, says Mr Gemmill.

From a local perspective, if growers are near a mill, Group 3 wheats look interesting as the biscuit premium is stronger than that for Group 1 breadmakers, but they do need to be stored separately.

Furthermore, Group 1 varieties now yield as well as Group 4s in a lot of cases, but growing them depends on the local market.

“Look at where you can add value because there’s not the significant yield difference there was in the past.”


An ear of barley

© Tim Scrivener

In recent years there’s been a real swing to planting spring barley, as it grows well in the UK, there are good malting markets and it can help tackle blackgrass.

However, winter barley offers an early entry to oilseed rape and can still provide a malting premium, says Mr Gemmill

There are strong niche markets for those who can get contracts for varieties such as Maris Otter, while others will grow feed barley for its vigour. “These growers will look to plant hybrids to compete with blackgrass.”

Demand for barley is expected to be strong, explains Mr Ashbridge. “This is part driven by global demand and part domestic demand.”

Barley is often at a £10/t discount to feed wheat, adds Mr Gemmill. “But this needs to be balanced with its lower variable costs, needing less nitrogen and fungicide.”

Also weigh up the agronomic benefits of barley and other factors such as the value of straw, which is high because of its sparsity.

Oilseed rape

Oilseed rape

© Tim Scrivener

Oilseed rape markets are driven by different factors to wheat and barley, says Mr Ashbridge.

“Though prices have recovered some ground, they’re more linked to crude oil price and currency movements. If growers are restricted to broadacre cereals and oilseeds, it’s still the best gross margin break crop for those who can establish it easily.”

Flea beetle considerations have to be made, says Mr Gemmill. “Growers are more cautious of buying expensive seed. Historically, they’d have grown more expensive high erucic acid (Hear) varieties, but if the crop fails, they could lose £100/ha.”

So there are now more growers looking to save on seed by opting for conventional varieties or home-saved seed planted at a higher seed rate.

However, gross margins for OSR are strong due to higher oil prices, he adds. “It’s a crop that will come back into favour because of this.”

Farmers should be cautious though, as weak rapeseed crops can lead to blackgrass problems in the following wheat crop. “OSR should be a one in five in a rotation.”


Oats in a field

© Tim Scrivener

Oats are increasingly being grown, particularly in the East, says Mr Gemmill.

“There’s growing demand and they have useful characteristics like vigour and being a take-all break crop, with generally lower inputs.”


Beans growing in a field

© Tim Scrivener

Since the changes to greening rules, the popularity of beans has fallen somewhat, but they still give an alternative to help spread risk, and have reasonable chemistry options to help in the control of blackgrass, says Mr Gemmill.

“Unfortunately, they’re at the low end in terms of gross margin unless you’re getting 5t/ha or more. If you get below 3.5t/ha it would be incredibly marginal growing them.”

Niche crops

With niche crops, it’s all about having an end market. Rye might work on light land for wholecrop or to feed an anaerobic digester, says Mr Gemmill. “But be careful not to plant without a contract.”

There is not much of a triticale market, while ahiflower has lost some contract value. “Most niche crops are spring sown and with their ability to help control blackgrass and ryegrass, you can see why they have value.”

However, niche crops need to fit into the rotation as much as any other, advises Mr Redman. “Will all of these crops fit together at harvest time and can it all be stored?”

Farmers have about 30 months to sell the crops they plant, he says. “Think about marketing, storage and risks, especially with added value crops.”

Feed wheat offers the highest predicted gross margin for 2018-19

Winter crop Yield (t/ha) Output (£/ha) Variable costs (£/ha) Gross margin (£/ha)
Feed wheat 8.60 1,290 496 794
Milling wheat 8.25 1,287 545 742
Feed barley 7.00 966 392 574
Malting barley 6.20 939 362 578
Oats 6.30 882 324 558
Oilseed rape 3.50 1,173 457 715
Beans 4.20 756 265 491
Source: Preliminary figures from the 2019 John Nix Pocketbook (subject to change)