Early start leads to a late finish for the wheat harvest

Harvest 2006 threatened to be one of the earliest on record but, as Harvest Highlight’s Karen Willmer reports, it didn’t quite work out that way

 Flaming June – and an even hotter July. A lack of rain in the early summer on the back of a dry winter and spring meant a very early start to harvest for most farmers.

Concern was rife that crop performance would really suffer, but early indications were a pleasant surprise for many.

Winter barley ripened before yields were hit too badly by July’s searing heat. But the lack of moisture did affect quality, with nitrogen levels high in both winter and spring barley, particularly in parts of Scotland.

Spring barley yields suffered from a lack of moisture during ear-fill more than the winter crop, and many farmers were disappointed.

Yorkshire grower Derek Lamplough said Cocktail yielded “pretty poorly” and crops were very short. “It is not a good year for spring barley,” he noted.

But the drought had a more significant impact on oilseed rape and, unusually, many struggled to cut at high enough moisture levels, with some crops coming in below 4%.

Wheat harvest started two weeks ahead of normal, with our earliest report of wheat cut on 10 July in Nottinghamshire. A number of growers managed to wrap things up by 7 August.

Wheat crops on lighter land suffered more than those on heavier land. They burnt off quickly on light soil, but more moisture-retentive soils allowed crops to survive longer and yields tended to be better, proving the old adage that wheat is a sunshine crop.

Then came the rain as July turned into August.

While those who managed to finish before the rain were planning holidays, others with crops remaining tried to catch rare moments of combining between showers.

Nick Pratt in Norfolk saw 55mm of rain in 36 hours on 11 August and managed only five days’ cutting in the whole month.
Hailstones the size of ice cubes hit parts of Hertfordshire. “One neighbour lost 2.5t/ha of peas, and another had their beans totally stripped,” said grower Robert Law.

Against a background of high diesel prices, avoiding drying costs in the early part of harvest was a boon – but cooling the crops seemed a greater problem.

As storms continued throughout August, particularly in the east, crops had to be cut at any opportunity, with many combining at moisture levels above 20%.

Some in Scotland were finishing harvest while others in Kent and East Anglia were still only two-thirds through. But those English growers were most concerned about the impact on quality rather than moisture.

Indeed, as the heavy storms of mid-August spread across all regions of the UK, quality did deteriorate rapidly, with reports of lodging and sprouting at the end of the month.

Any wheat in store before the wet weather has, not surprisingly, proved the best quality.

Crops cut since the rain have little quality left, with low bushel weights and Hagbergs. Stephen Ellerbeck in Huntingdon, Cambs, reflects the concerns of many over harvest when he says: “It’s a shame, because in May and June the crops looked fantastic.”
And what of next season?

Many growers have been considering dropping milling wheat because of the low premiums on offer.

But rising feed wheat prices have helped support a more optimistic mood and, weather permitting, it looks unlikely that there will be a dramatic downturn in drilled acres this autumn, confounding the single payment predictions of a year ago.