How did harvest go for our Arable Insights farmers?

It’s been a difficult stop-start harvest across the country, but how have our regular featured Arable Insights farmer panel fared?

See also: Harvest 2023: The 5 top-yielding spring barley varieties map

Scotland: Amy Geddes

For the first time, the team at Wester Braikie Farms in Angus have cut all their wheat before starting on any spring barley, Amy Geddes reports.

“Secondary growth in spring barley has been an issue here, with some still green. It’s been challenging to deal with.

“We took the decision not to use glyphosate, as the green tillers would have really taken up the chemical and that’s when you start to see issues with rejections through damaged germination.”

Spring barley quality was a concern, with the initial sample result showing slightly higher-than-specification grain nitrogen at 1.68% and 9% skinning, even after careful setup of the combine.

Fortunately, those initial results have been an anomaly, with following samples below 1.65% N, though skinning has been up to 13%, Amy says.

Yields of both spring barley and winter wheat have been pleasing though, according to combine estimates, with wheat achieving 8-10t/ha, she says.

“We had one field with wheat bulb fly damage earlier in the year, but it made up for it and wasn’t disappointing at all.”

No wheat was cut at moistures above 20%, so drying costs were not substantial considering the catchy weather, with about 9,000 litres of diesel used to dry grain to 13% for long-term storage.

Dawsum is set to replace Swallow next season after a small area was grown for farm-saved seed this season.

“It looked to yield well, although it was a bit reticent to stay on its feet towards harvest. Hopefully, that was a issue specific to this season.”

Chrome, a clubroot-tolerant oilseed rape variety, yielded 4.4t/ha at 46% oil content. “I’ve no complaints,” Amy concludes.

Midlands: Will Oliver

Without any winter barley or oilseed rape, harvest started off at Swepstone Fields Farm in Leicestershire with some dry Skyfall wheat. Unfortunately, that was the last wheat cut at below 20% moisture for some time, Will Oliver says.

That made for a challenging harvest. Wheat yields were average. “Our five-year average gives us a 3,000t total, and we finished just 110t short.”

Growing costs had increased slightly by £20/ha compared with last year, mitigated by using leftover fertiliser from last year and lots of poultry muck.

But Skyfall disappointed by failing to meet the protein spec for milling wheat, as well as struggling with yellow rust infection.

“It measured 11% protein, partly because we didn’t put any late foliar urea on, so it was always going to be a bonus if we reached spec. Without any other Group 1s jumping out, I’m resorting to Extase and Dawsum for harvest 2024.”

The other harvested crop, winter beans, struggled to reach full potential, but at 4.7t/ha Will was happy with the result, especially given challenging chocolate spot levels.

That contributed to much higher growing costs, up more than £100/ha compared with last year and £200/ha versus 2021.

West: Mark Wood

Being unable to cut for two consecutive days until the last week of August, with no corn cut until September that didn’t need drying, made for a very testing harvest at Clay Farms, Hereford.

“That was hard to manage,” says farm manager Mark Wood. “We were getting rain on one half of the estate and it was dry at the other end, and you were never in the right place.”

Winter barley yields ended up about average at just under 7.5t/ha, but it could have been exceptional if weather damage hadn’t left a few heads on the floor after some storms just before harvest.

“Oilseed rape was better than the past couple of years at about 3.75-4t/ha, but is not at the levels of five years ago.

“We grow Clearfield varieties where you get a yield penalty, but the crop was clean and yielded well, so I was quite pleased.”

There was a clear difference in yields of winter wheat on light and heavier soil types.

“The wheats didn’t quite finish off on some of the lighter ground where they ran out of energy in June. But the heavier land wheats have been very pleasing.”

That made a difference of up to 1t/ha, with heavier land wheat yielding more than 9t/ha, and lighter land 8-8.5t/ha, Mark says.

“We’d normally average in excess of 9t/ha, but we’re down closer to 8.5t/ha this year, having spent a bit more on fungicides and a lot more on fertiliser.”

The big disappointment were spring crops. Beans averaged just over 2.5t/ha, but the peas were terrible, Mark says.

“I think it’s because we planted them while it was a bit damp and they didn’t get roots down, so when we hit the dry June, they put out a couple of flowers, then gave up.”

South West: Emma Foot

After two easier years, it was a more “normal” harvest on Emma Foot’s 205ha farm near Bere Regis in Dorset. “It was a bit of a shock to the system,” she admits.

Oilseed rape was disappointing, only yielding 2.5t/ha at best, after storms caused pods to shatter before harvest.

That led to her trying a small area this season of hybrid Exsteel, which carries the pod shatter resistance trait and the security of an establishment scheme guarantee, alongside home-saved conventional Campus.

Other crops were better, with both Extase and Dawsum wheat yielding about 10t/ha, and a continuation on the farm, while Laureate spring barley achieved the target malting spec with grain nitrogens ranging between 1.5% and 1.65%.

“Yields were about 8.75t/ha from an end-of-February drilling, so we were pretty pleased, even if harvesting was difficult with the showers,” Emma says.

Neither Orwell winter barley, which yielded 10t/ha, or winter oats needed drying, although oat yields were down.

“We’d normally hope for over 10t/ha with winter oats, but it was about 9.25t/ha this year so not quite such a good crop.”

Northern Ireland: Simon Best

Good weather during May and June brought crops further forward in Northern Ireland. This made for a frustrating start to harvest for Simon Best, when winter barley was ready to cut, but took a hammering from the weather.

“We eventually cut it in the last week of July, with moisture levels of 18-22% and yields close to 9.3t/ha on average, which was one of the positives of the year.”

Winter barley has returned to the rotation in recent years to provide an earlier entry into oilseed rape, but last year it was hit by barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV), with yields less than 7.5t/ha. “Later drilling has helped with BYDV,” Simon says.

Improved weather helped to get oilseed rape harvested in just three days, with yields just shy of 5t/ha, but both winter and spring oats disappointed after struggling with establishment due to wet weather.

“Quality looks reasonably good, but 6.25t/ha would be the height of yield this year, when we are aiming for more than 7.5t/ha.”

The results have confirmed Simon’s intention to grow more Isabel spring oats to mitigate increasing threats from oat mosaic virus and blackgrass. “The Isabel oats performed better than the winter varieties this year.”

Wheat harvest started and finished earlier than ever, taking nine days from 8 August using the farm’s Claas Lexion 770 with a 9m header.

“It’s well over capacity, but you have to get in when you have the window.”

Yields were below the 10t/ha target of last year, but respectable at 9.25t/ha, Simon says, cut at 16-20% moisture content.

North: James Pick

The combinable crop harvest for North Yorkshire farmer James Pick has been good, he reports.

Oilseed rape yields were above average for the farm at 4.3t/ha. A comparison of a three-way blend of varieties versus a monoculture of a hybrid will be repeated this season after the blend stood and yielded better than the comparison hybrid Aurelia.

“It’s reinforced my thinking that a blend in oilseed rape could be more valuable than in wheat and help achieve a lower input oilseed rape crop.”

But James was disappointed by the spring vigour and late maturity of the conventional he chose, so he will be returning to solely hybrid varieties in the coming season.

Dawsum wheat has been a winner on the farm, despite a little bit of lodging, while Palladium has outyielded Cranium by about 1t/ha in their first appearances on the farm. “I’ve been impressed by both.”

Two fields of second wheat and a field where the soil pH was a problem have brought the overall wheat average down to about 10t/ha, he says.

Winter barley is the poorest-performing crop, mainly due to wheat volunteers that didn’t germinate before the barley was drilled in the dry period in late summer last year.

“The actual barley is a good sample – some of the best we’ve grown – but there’s too much wheat in it, so it’s going for feed. That cost us £50/t in premium and £450/ha overall, which takes the shine off.”

South East: Doug Wanstall

It’s not been a vintage harvest, Doug Wanstall says. “Wheat was highly variable, ranging from 7.2t/ha to about 11t/ha for some Dawsum.”

The latter, though, has given some confidence that Doug’s regenerative system might be helping, as that piece of land has been part of the regenerative approach the longest. “It’s had the most dressings of compost and is probably the most fertile.

“We don’t have a control, though, so I don’t know for certain whether it is the variety or the fact it’s been in regenerative production for eight years.”

Lower yielding heavier land suffered from waterlogging, pulling down the overall average to about 8t/ha, he adds.

“Our five-year average has been 9-9.5t/ha, but we used only 75kg N/ha. We’re confident we can grow good yields with lower levels of nitrogen, but I think next year we’ll increase it to nearer 100kg N/ha.

“One of the biggest issues this season was not getting enough nitrogen on early enough because of the cold, wet spring. The first dose only went on in April.”

About 30kg N/ha of this total was applied using a foliar nitrogen source. “I don’t think we will increase that after hearing reports from others where yields suffered through an over-reliance on foliar N.

“Instead we’ll look to increase what’s applied to the soil through early applied melted urea mixed with humic acid and other things. I think that’s the way for us to improve nitrogen use efficiency.”

Oilseed rape was a disaster, with the surviving crop dying from the inside out following winter, he says. “I took most of it out and I wish I’d taken it all out. If it has done 2t/ha I will be surprised.”

The small area of oilseed rape will be replaced by a living mulch of clover this season into which he plans to direct-drill spring barley.

He estimates this year’s spring barley yielded 6.5t/ha, with good grain quality and low growing costs.

“I think once I’ve analysed it, if we get any level of premium, it could be one of our best margins.”

Oilseed rape

© Tim Scrivener

East Anglia – James Sills

Wheat harvest turned out better than expected, albeit after expectations had been downgraded by BYDV, James Sills says.

“In the worst barley yellow dwarf virus-affected areas, yields dropped to about 5-6t/ha, whereas in the middle of fields it peaked somewhere in the elevens.”

Most of the BYDV-affected areas were on headlands, and with neighbours suggesting a 1t/ha headland yield penalty on their farms, James suspects BYDV cost an extra 2-3t/ha, with probably an overall penalty in the region of 5-10%.

That is making decisions about no insecticide use in the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) difficult, as he hasn’t found any good data on long-term effects.

“How often is this sort of year going to happen, and how bad are the other years?” he asks.

“0.5t/ha is a £100/ha yield penalty, but if you’re taking SFI at £45/ha every year it doesn’t take many years to pay back a £100/ha or even £200/ha loss. If it’s one year in 10 it makes sense to take SFI.”

Milling wheat was the winner on the farm, with Extase especially performing well, averaging 10t/ha and making the minimum 12% protein for a premium after 280-300kg N/ha was applied. Feed wheat averaged nearly 1t/ha less.

“Extase is going to give a margin massively beyond our feed wheat – I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a big difference. When you calculate the figures, it’s worth £600-£700/ha on the bottom line.”

Testing every load with a new protein meter has helped manage milling wheat into store.

“It was slightly complicated by high moisture and drying grain, but we tested every load and segregated above and below 12.5% protein where we could.

“Last year, we were getting a premium of £80-£90/t, and if you get a load rejected and redirected to a lower grade, you’re talking about £2,000/load.”

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