Harvest verdict: Barley is the winner in mixed season

The 2019 harvest started in ideal dry conditions with winter barley growers reporting bumper crops coming off with good quality, some were even seeing yields well into double digits.   

But as combines moved into oilseed rape the mood changed, with the effects of the previous summer’s drought and flea beetle damage being realised, albeit not as badly as many feared.

A turn in the weather with a wet August saw growers unable to get combines in the field, bale straw or establish their winter crops, leading to widespread frustration.

See also: How Cambs grower has halved glyphosate use

However, despite concerns at the time, wheat and spring barley crops have largely performed well, although the quality of some milling and malting varieties did suffer.

“It has been one of those harvests where there have been some good yields, but farmers were kyboshed by the weather,” says David Leaper, agronomist at Agrii.

With high temperatures and rainfall, some crops went down and sprouted, so loss of quality was expected. “However, no specific varieties came grossly unstuck.”

Though 2019 has not been an extreme year for disease, Mr Leaper did notice an increased response to fungicides.

“This has been significantly greater than in previous years. There has been a huge difference regionally, as the further west you go, the bigger the response.”

Even though growers are opting for good disease resistance, they still need to ensure sensible levels of fungicides are applied and avoid missing out on even higher yields, he says.

So what’s the inside story of each crop and what can growers learn from harvest 2019?

Oilseed rape

Oilseed rape has been on a downward trend because of flea beetle and the figures for the 2019 harvest suggests the English crop has fallen below 500,000ha for the first time in 15 years.

Owen Cligg, trading manager at United Oilseeds, predicts a much lower production of 1.7-1.8m tonnes this year, down on 1.95m tonnes in 2018.

Though the oilseed rape harvest was largely unaffected by adverse weather, pest damage was the real yield robber this year, according to the Adas and AHDB harvest report.

After the drought of last summer, less than ideal planting conditions saw crops struggle to establish well, making them susceptible to cabbage stem flea beetle damage, resulting in a number of losses.

“The flea beetle area has expanded and though pressure levels varied, because of the drought, crops were very small and were attacked easily,” says Mr Cligg.

Simon Kightley, oilseed specialist at Niab Tag, points out that 13% of the oilseed rape crop was lost to flea beetle damage and the drought.

Even those who hadn’t battled flea beetle in the autumn didn’t necessarily get away from the pest, with many unexpectedly finding their plants under attack from larvae in the early part of the year.

“The mild winter led to prolonged egg laying and larval feeding, which dragged performance down,” says Mr Kightley.

Oilseed rape harvest © Tim Scrivener

“Apparently good crops were infested with larvae, often resulting in poor spring growth, unusual branching and late flowering, which then led to pollen beetle attack and poor seed set.”

Some farmers who were determined to take damaged crops to harvest saw further issues from pigeons, with many crops reportedly being patchy and inconsistent within fields.

According to the Adas and AHDB harvest report, GB yields are estimated at 3.2-3.5t/ha, just shy of the five-year average of 3.5t/ha. However, some of the most damaged fields were reported as yielding as little as 1t/ha.

Few crops required drying, however some harvested in early August were too dry, with oil contents suffering. On average oil contents were 43%, with a range of 40-47%.

“Oils have generally been lower than previously,” adds Mr Cligg. “Though it’s difficult to tell, I would say an average of 1-1.5% points lower than last year.”

The varieties which stood out to Mr Cligg this year were Aurelia and Acacia, and while Mr Kightley agrees, he highlights a larger pool of principally Limagrain varieties as well as Darling and Dazzler from DSV that performed well.

Oilseed rape at a glance

  • AHDB trial results saw yields down on the five-year average of 5.27t/ha, at 5.22t/ha for treated crops. However, AHDB trials do not account for crops which are lost to pest damage. Rather than pursue a damaged crop to harvest, the trial is likely to be abandoned, which can skew average yield results. 
  • Defra stats show a greater reduction, with the average 0.2t/ha down on the five-year average of 3.5t/ha. However, this may still hide the huge variability with some crops at 1t/ha 
  • The top five varieties from AHDB trials are: Acacia (111%), Ambassador (110%), Aurelia (109%), Artemis (108%) and Aspire (107%)

Going into the season, Mr Kightley had felt that varieties with turnip yellows virus resistance would be the standout performers, with the disease becoming more influential.

However, although these did well, Acacia, a conventional variety without resistance, has topped the AHDB rankings.

“After decades of working with hybrids and waiting for them to outperform conventionals, they still haven’t,” says Mr Kightley. “Just look at the short conventionals like Ballad, Acacia and Aspire.”

However, the key lesson for growers to take from harvest 2019 is that oilseed rape needs to be drilled early to have the most chance of out-growing flea beetle, and this can be bolstered by growing a hybrid with early vigour, he adds.

“Though early vigour is not consistent enough to be put on the Recommended List, some trials show clear differences between good and bad early vigour.

“The most convincing tactic I have seen in surveys over and over again is that early sowing has better results.”

Poor harvest weather led to sprouting © Susie Slatter Alamy

Wheat

Crops on heavier land tended to perform better than those on lighter land last season, which for some milling wheat growers led to lower than expected proteins. 

Poor harvest weather in August also hit milling quality, with growers who got caught out and unable to get to the crop seeing their wheat go flat, or experiencing sprouting, lodging and quality reductions.

Overall, GB yields averaged 8.8-9t/ha, up from the five-year average of 8.3t/ha, with the range hitting lows of 6.5t/ha, up to highs of 12.5t/ha.

According to the AHDB report, milling wheat varieties typically yielded 6.5-11t/ha, while feed varieties yielded 7-12.5t/ha.

“It did depend on where you were in the country, but on the whole yields were fine,” explains Clare Leaman, cereal crop scientist at Niab Tag.

Wheat at a glance

  • AHDB trial sites saw treated yields average 11.55t/ha, slightly up on the five-year average of 11.21t/ha
  • Defa stats show a greater yield increase with the 2019 average of 9t/ha matching the previous peak yield in 2015. This compares with a five-year average of 8.3t/ha
  • The top five varieties from the AHDB trials are: Skyscraper (105%), Graham (104%), Kerrin (104%), Gleam (104%) and Kinetic (104%)

The best yields came from crops on heavier land, which retained water better during the grain fill period, while those on lighter land suffered water stress, limiting their yields.

Quality was typically good, with most crops meeting end market specification, but those harvested later did see lower Hagbergs.

Overall, most Group 1s and 2s made the specification, with earlier harvested crops well over 300 seconds. Groups 3 and 4 saw the majority of crops above the Hagberg specification of 180-200, according to the AHDB report.

Protein contents of Groups 1 and 2 averaged 12-13% with specific weights levelling at 75kg/hl across the board with a range of 70-80kg/hl.

However, beyond the middle of August, hardly any Group 1s made full milling specification, notes Dan Murphy, laboratory and haulage manager at Woldgrain in Lincolnshire.

“Those with higher than expected yields saw lower proteins than hoped for and Hagbergs certainly ended up short. Last year we graded 1,400t of milling wheat as low, this year it was 2,800t, based on a very similar intake.”

Drying demand was mixed, with the majority of crops having low moisture contents of 14-15%, however there were some reports of high drying demands in areas where farmers got little break from the rain.

In future seasons, growers should be vigilant with disease control, warns Mrs Leaman. “Deal with what is in front of you, instead of what you think might be in front of you.”

© Tim Scrivener Winter barley produced a bumper crop

Winter barley

Winter barley was by far the standout performer, with good yields and quality across the board, with some growers hitting 12t/ha.

“Generally winter barley was a bumper crop and everyone was pretty content, with varieties performing as expected,” says Mrs Leaman.

The GB yield average was 5-8% up on the five-year average, at 7.4-7.6t/ha, with yields ranging from 8t/ha to 12t/ha for hybrid varieties and 7-8t/ha for two and six row conventionals, according to AHDB.

Winter barley at a glance

  • AHDB trials averaged 10.05t/ha for treated crops, slightly above the five-year average of 10.02t/ha
  • Top five performing varieties in AHDB 2019 trials: Baracooda (109%), Kingsbarn (108%), Belfry (107%), Sunningdale (107%) and Belmont (107%)
  • Defra June census stats show a more positive picture with the average yield more than 10% above the five year mean at 7.9t/ha.

Specific weights averaged 65-66kg/hl and typically ranged from 63-69kg/hl, while moistures averaged 15% with few crops needing any drying.

Screenings averaged 3%, ranging from 2% to 15%, with reports of higher screenings from lighter land, while germination levels were close to 99%.

Among malting varieties, nitrogen levels averaged 1.6% and ranged from 1.4% to 1.7%.

Combines stopped in wet weather © Tim Scrivener

Spring barley

Spring barley was another winner last season with the Defra UK average yield 12% higher than the five year mean, although lodging was a problem for some due to the wet August weather.

The AHDB trials showed a smaller increase with the average GB yield at 5.8-6t/ha, slightly up on the five-year average of 5.6t/ha. Specific weights averaged 62-65kg/hl and ranged from 58kg/hl to 68kg/hl.

According to the AHDB, increased tillering in Scotland reduced grain size, but this had no significant effect on overall quality.

Screenings averaged 2-4%, while germination was between 97% and 99% in most cases. However, around 10% of the crop was lost to pre-germination in Scotland, with some rejections from maltsters.

Malting varieties had average nitrogen contents of 1.6%, with a typical range of 1.5% to 1.7%.

However, in Scotland nitrogen levels averaged 1.47%, down from 1.66% last season, while all English regions saw average contents ranging from 1.61% to 1.72%.

Despite the August rain, most spring barley required little drying, with moisture contents typically around 15-17%.

Spring barley at a glance

  • AHDB treated spring barley trials averaged 8.11t/ha, up on the five-year average of 7.61t/ha
  • According to Defra stats, the average yield of 6.5t/ha puts it 12% above the five-year average
  • Top five performing varieties in AHDB 2019 trials: Splendor (108%), Fairway (108%), Diablo (106%), Prospect (106%), Firefoxx (106%) and Furlong (106%)

Pulses

In general, pulses have done quite well this season, according to Roger Vickers at the Processors and Growers Research Organisation.

The bean crop is significantly larger than 2018, despite an 11.4% fall in cropping area to 134,000ha. About 650,000t has been harvested, suggesting an average yield of almost 5t/ha – almost 2t/ha up on last year.

Peas have also done well, with an increased area of 7.3% on 2018 to 40,000ha, yields have been good, with less issues in marrowfat peas, says Mr Vickers.