Harvest 2017: Wet weather heightens wheat quality fears

Milling wheat growers are being urged to combine as soon as possible to prevent a slump in grain quality in a frustrating harvest beset by rain showers.

Grain co-operatives are pushing wheat growers to cut even if moisture levels are high to preserve good hagberg values, which are essential for breadmaking.

They are encouraging growers to cut wheat at up to or even just over 20% moisture content, as some are capping their drying costs to their members.

See also: Harvest 2017: Growers forced to cut ripe crops in the wet

With this week looking unsettled, waiting for better weather is not an option when the gluten quality of wheat – in terms of hagberg – is showing signs of falling.

Variable hagbergs

Hertfordshire grower Andrew Bott has just finished cutting 90ha of the milling wheat variety Skyfall, with an average yield of 8t/ha showing excellent proteins and specific weights, but variable hagbergs.

“Yields are on budget and as expected, as the area include a lot of second wheats,” he told Farmers Weekly from Finches Farm, Benington, just east of Stevenage.

He added proteins were more than 13%, specific weights higher than 76kg/hl and some hagbergs were more than 250, but other samples dipped below. He was hoping milling wheats might be in short supply this season to help prices.

Variety switch 

Lower milling premiums had prompted Essex grower Tom Bradshaw to switch to Group 2 milling varieties from Group 1 breadmakers and his early crops showed good yields and quality.

He is cutting the variety Lili which is yielding more than 10t/ha and meeting the 11.5% protein demand for Group 2s with good hagbergs and specific weights, while Siskin as a second wheat was yielding 8.25-8.5t/ha.

He has just moved into his 620ha of wheat, after focusing on 210ha of the Null-Lox spring barley variety Chapeau, which showed good quality. The crop averaged 6.0-6.5t/ha yield with a nitrogen content of 1.7%, comfortably meeting the maltsters’ needs.

“We have focused on spring barley, as we were losing heads, but the quality has been fantastic,” he said from his base at Fletchers Farm, Fordham near Colchester.

Harvest stopped at Flawborough Farms in Nottinghamshire © Will Jones

Harvest stopped at Flawborough Farms in Nottinghamshire © Will Jones

Quality dipping

Philip Darke, managing director of grain co-operative Camgrain, says with 50% of the group’s quality wheat delivered, hagbergs are moving slightly lower.

“We are pushing hard for growers to deliver milling wheats and have capped drying charges for our members,” he said.

Some wheats are being cut at as high as 22% moisture and the co-op has capped its drying charges at £6/t for the past two weeks to encourage growers to cut before hagbergs drop below millers’ traditional minimum standard of 250.

Surprisingly resilient

Further north, fellow co-operative Fengrain also reports declining hagbergs and some sign of sprouting in wheat ears. Each day is seeing more wheat arriving of just feed quality.

“Crop quality is being surprisingly resilient, but there is evidence that hagbergs are moving lower,” said the group’s managing director Rob Munro.

With a lot of wet grain being delivered and some crops lodged, harvest progress is slow among the group’s members largely in the fenlands.

“It was an early harvest, but it is grinding into a late harvest,” he said.

Good yields 

In north Cambridgeshire, Thomas Martin kicked off this week with a bang by getting into a field of milling variety Crusoe which was yielding almost 10t/ha and showing a good hagberg of 344.

The second wheat performed well as it was the field’s second year out of grass, which Mr Martin credits with boosting fertility and suppressing weeds on his heavy clay land.

Wheat yields overall are a fraction up on last year, putting the average this year at 8.8t/ha on his farm at Haddon, just south-west of Peterborough.

There was slower going in Kent, with Guy Eckley just started on his 280ha of Skyfall, Crusoe and Trinity. He had only cut 40ha of wheat at the beginning of this week at his farm near Staplehurst.

Wheat in Wales

The wheat harvest is under way in south Wales at Penllyn Estate. Farm manager Damien Burnell started cutting the variety Siskin on 4 August, yielding 10t/ha at a moisture content of 18-22%.

One-quarter of the estate’s 80ha of wheat has been cut so far, with another field of Skyfall grown as a feed wheat coming off at 7.5t/ha. However, progress has been slow, with the combine blocking up because of the wet crops on the estate near Cowbridge.

However, not all of the crop is ready to go yet, with a 12ha field still showing green stalks after it went down following several days of heavy rain three weeks ago.

Combine in field under dark clouds

© Sara Passmore

Pleasing barley 

In east Suffolk, Ben Larter is seeing some big yields of wheat, with Siskin doing 12.4t/ha, and Barrel and Santiago managing 11-11.5t/ha. However, he has had no hagberg data yet.

Wet weather is dampening harvest progress and he is concerned if there is another five or six days of wet weather, harvest could turn into a “salvage job”.

Earlier-cut hybrid winter barley showed a good yield of 9.8t/ha as it coped better with dry conditions in March and April, and competed well with blackgrass.

Some of the crop did go over, but there is a demand for straw in the area, so a tall variety is not a big problem, he said.

Mr Larter, who is partner at Plant Larter, grew 55ha of Bazooka on the 1,600ha operation just north of Woodbridge, which has soil types ranging from light, blowing sand through to heavy clays.

Good rapeseed

In north-west Nottinghamshire, Robert Sutton has not started on his main winter wheat harvest, but his oilseed rape harvest has been good, with the farm achieving the second-best yield result ever at 4.75t/ha from crops of Anastasia, Elgar and Campus at  Skegby House Farm, between the A1 and the River Trent.

His first wheats are ready to go as soon as the weather improves and the variety Lili is looking like a strong crop. However, if harvest cannot go ahead quickly, he is unsure if it will make any milling premium.