Crops wither in driest spring for a century

Cereal crops in parts of the south and east of England have been irreparably damaged following the driest spring for over 100 years.

Showers over the bank holiday weekend have generally been too little too late, and the situation in some areas is now critical, according to consultancy firm ADAS.

Stunted crops on lighter soils are now past the point of full recovery. Decent yields are still possible on heavier land, but only if ideal weather returns during grain fill, said the company.

Up to 85% of the UK’s cereal crops have been affected, with around 20% of both winter wheat and barley crops severely hit, agronomists’ reports have shown.

Provisional Met Office figures show England and Wales is heading for the driest spring since 1893. But East Anglia, the UK’s breadbasket, is set to record a record dry spring after receiving an average of 17mm of rain between 1 March and 24 May, just 13% of normal. Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and the south east had less than 50mm of rain.

Soils moisture deficits now top 120mm in the eastern half of England and well over 100mm in the Midlands and south west. “Crops on medium and heavier soils are at risk of drought impact on their yields,” said Susan Twining of ADAS Boxworth.

“We are now in uncharted territory, and recent rain will not have made much of a difference. With warm and settled weather forecast again, prospects are not getting any better, especially as crops are reaching peak moisture demand.

“The number of grains per ear, is now set, and the only possible yield compensation will come from grain size if there is sufficient moisture available during grain fill.”

If that happens, average UK yields may only slip 5%. If only half the required rain arrives, the average could fall below 7t/ha. “In severely hit areas, yields could fall 40%,” Mrs Twining said.

Barley crops with lower tiller numbers will already be compromised with no prospect of improvement, she added.

Farmers Weekly Barometer Farmer Edd Banks reckoned first wheat yields on his heavy land near Cambridge could be pegged by 10%, and second wheats up to 25%.

“We had enough rain to do some good on Monday, but before that we had only had about 8mm since the beginning of March. We need a bit more between now and harvest to help the crop fill.”

Independent agronomist Peter Taylor of Essex and Hertfordshire’s Samco said local heavy showers earlier in the month had helped some crops. But last weekend’s 3-4mm of rain would do little to help others.

“Heavy-land wheats might end up being 10-20% down, depending on establishment and soil structure. But some light land crops are in serious trouble, and we could be looking at 50% yield loss on some fields.”

Spring barley is suffering badly on light land, but pulses and sugar beet are said to be faring much better. “Some beet crops are not as far forward as they might be, but they don’t need much water yet so there’s still plenty of potential there.”

• See our gallery of farmers’ photographs of the crops hit by the dry weather, and add your own here. And share your throughts on the dry spell in our forum here.


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