North: Rain sweeps away good start to cropping season

Well, it was too good to last – the perfect autumn soil conditions, great crop establishment, and little in the way of slug damage or other pests were swept aside by deluge conditions over the last two months.

Scotland experienced the wettest December on record with 333.1mm of rain, along with incredibly mild temperatures and no frost to speak of in arable areas at least. January has been much the same but with a few frosty nights to bring some relief from relentless rain.

Whilst we were not quite as badly off as Cumbria, there were scenes of devastation in Deeside (Aberdeenshire) where the roads were washed away and dwellings put severely at risk. Parts of Perthshire were also inundated and vast quantities of topsoil have been stripped off once-fertile fields, and boulders strewn across grassland. The cost of the damage will be nearly impossible to quantify for those unfortunate enough to suffer the most dramatic flooding. It raises all sorts of political issues and there will need to be some constructive discussions about how best to manage the rivers that are most prone to bursting their banks.

My home county of East Lothian has come off lightly in comparison, but there has been hardly any winter ploughing so far, and the mild weather has allowed septoria and mildew to manifest themselves in autumn crops. Last time we had a frost-free winter it was followed by massive disease pressure throughout the growing season, so Plan A is already in place… but who knows what is yet to come?

The latest game in Scottish farming circles is to spot the one with their BPS payment – and they are hard to find. Under the previous scheme, payments were made promptly and efficiently at the beginning of December for the vast majority of farmers, but we are currently sitting with around 30% of recipients paid by the end of January and this combined with the weather and the poor commodity prices is causing a distinct lack of optimism and cheer in our industry.

The large grain stocks and the lack of movement in global supply and demand could be a headache for a while. Payments in the bank, some good drying winds and sunshine will come a lot sooner.

Thinking ahead to spring cropping and malting barley, Concerto is still the maltsters’ favourite, but there are a few varieties that look promising for this market. Sienna and Octavia gained provisional Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD) approval in 2015, and Laureate is under test and is a step ahead for yield, with good agronomic features. Octavia has a slightly higher spirit yield than Concerto and the other new contenders, so maybe that is the one to watch.


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