Spring crops set to be cheaper to grow

The spring drilling period is looming, but what crops are likely to yield the best returns? Olivia Cooper reports

A return to a more normal season means growers have more time to consider their spring cropping options. Most winter crops went into excellent seed-beds and had a perfect start, meaning the spring cropped area is set to drop back.

The HGCA’s early bird survey showed a 22% rise in the wheat area (including spring wheat) to 1.98m hectares.

With winter barley plantings up by 55% to 484,000ha (the highest area for a decade), the spring barley area is likely to drop by 41%, to 534,000ha.

This decline in area means spring crops should be much cheaper to grow than last year, says Graham Redman, editor of the John Nix Farm Management Pocketbook.

“Spring seed was very expensive last year, because of the high demand,” he says. Bean seed, that was more than £600/t last year, has dropped to about £485/t, with spring wheat down to about £410/t and barley £420/t, Mr Redman adds.

Fertiliser is also considerably cheaper, with ammonium nitrate pegged at around £250/t, compared with £300/t last year; triple super phosphate dropping £100/t to £250/t, and muriate of potash down from £325/t to £250/t.

“Now is an ideal time to test your soil nutrient indices and top them up where required,” says Mr Redman.

But, of course, input costs only make for one side of the equation. Market prices are just as important, and are also considerably lower than last year.

“Spring cereal yields last year were generally quite reasonable, with spring wheat and oats doing much better than many farmers had expected,” says Mr Redman.

“With the lower cultivation costs, compared with winter cereals, the returns weren’t bad,” he says. However, with so much spring barley in the ground, malting and feed prices slumped, and a lot of malting barley was downgraded to feed.

So what will be the best performing crops this year? Based on average yields, Mr Redman expects spring malting barley to top the list, with a forecast gross margin of £647/ha (see graph). Spring wheat and beans are close behind, at £629/ha and £602, respectively.

Oats come in at about £550/ha, with blue peas and marrowfat at £493 and £484. Spring rape and linseed bring up the rear at £434/ha and £420/ha, respectively.

Wider considerations

But crop choices are rarely based solely on gross margins. Farmers must also consider the wider picture; rotation, workload, soil type, proximity of the end user, and so on.

“For example, pulses can add a lot more to the farm business, above and beyond their own profitability. They improve soil nitrogen content and are a good entrance for first wheat,” says Mr Redman.

Choosing crops that spread the harvest workload and require little cultivation or other inputs also enable producers to make better use of their labour and machinery.

Before choosing spring crops, producers should also consider the end market; what are their quality requirements, location, and likely price? “If a crop is good enough to plant, it’s good enough to sell – so look at forward contracts and consider selling a proportion forward,” Mr Redman says.

Spring crops provide particularly good options for grassweed control, says independent agronomist Peter Riley. “You need to create a stale seed-bed – the later drilled the spring crop the more blackgrass you’ll be able to spray off first,” he says.

However, pre-emergence herbicides are especially important for spring crops. “The earlier you sow spring barley, the more important a pre-emergence spray is,” he adds. “And with pulse crops there is no option but a robust pre-emergence spray, as the post-emergence options are so sparse.”

Creating a decent seed-bed is important for any crop, but conventional tillage can be expensive, says Mr Riley.

“Farmers are increasingly looking to non-inversion tillage on heavier soils, rather than pull up big slabs of wet clay in the spring,” he adds.

Heavy soils

Growers should also take advantage of any dry periods to cultivate heavy soils as early as possible, and given the variable weather of recent years, crop reliability is extremely important.

“We don’t seem to have average years any more – but you have to assume normal conditions and crops that suit your rotation best, rather than reacting to the season just gone,” Mr Riley says.

Growers should also be planning ahead for the next year’s cropping almost a year ahead.

“Anyone choosing spring crops now is really leaving it too late – those decisions should have been made back in the summer – and given the open autumn, everything should be going according to plan,” he says.

Anyone looking to use farm-saved seed should be aware of their legal responsibilities, and get it tested for germination, warns Mr Riley.

“In the case of some pulses, you also need to check for stem nematode and disease. And if you’re drilling either pulses or oilseed rape, make sure you don’t grow them in a tight rotation – you need a really good disease gap,” he says.

With the growth of energy crops and anaerobic digestion, some growers may be looking to alternative spring cropping.

Maize is one such option, which can be drilled up until early May, and has a number of possible end uses.

Those living near to an anaerobic digestion plant may be able to contract the crop at attractive prices of up to £1,500/ha, says Tim Richmond, maize manager at plant breeder Limagrain.

“Standing crops can easily make £1,125/ha, for silage or AD use – less the costs of harvesting,” he says.

Other marketing options include selling maize as a standing silage crop to local livestock producers, or harvesting the grain and crimping it for livestock feed. Either way, it is essential to have a commitment to purchase before deciding to grow the crop.

The costs of growing maize are similar regardless of the end use, although grain crops require slightly lower seed rates. Cultivation, seed, spray and fertiliser average about £753/ha, with contractors’ spraying and harvesting costs pegged at £340/ha, says Mr Richmond.

Maize benefits

With a silage yield of 45t/ha at 30% dry matter, growers can expect to harvest 13.5t DM/ha. At a value of around £100/t dry matter (DM), that gives a gross margin of £467/ha for silage or AD use, he adds.

Crops destined for grain use are likely to yield around 10t/ha and sell for about the same as wheat, but on a wet basis. At £150/t, that produces a gross margin of around £577/ha.

“Added benefits of maize in cereal rotations include the opportunity to get rid of blackgrass and other problem weeds,” says Mr Richmond. With a later harvest, it also spreads the workload, while still allowing time to get winter cereals drilled.

“However, early maturing varieties should always be selected. It may be tempting to grow a high-yielding, late-maturing variety, but as 2012’s weather demonstrated, this is a high-risk strategy and definitely not recommended for marginal sites,” he says.

Producers should also avoid compacted land, and be sure to provide adequate nutrition, ideally in the form of farmyard manure, due to the crop’s high potash requirements.






Spring (malting) barley




Spring wheat




Spring beans




Spring oats




Blue peas








Spring oilseed rape




Spring linseed




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