The 2011 harvest has been one of extremes – too dry, too wet; top yields and worst yields. But one common factor is that most crops fared better than expected, given the difficult growing season.
According to the Met Office, last winter was one of the coldest in recent years, with a mean UK temperature of 2.4C.
Rainfall in March, April and May was actually higher than last year, but this hid a massive divide between East Anglia, which received a fifth of its normal rainfall; and west Scotland, which received 27% more than average.
Scotland also bore the brunt of wet weather in June, with the Midlands escaping with 90% of their normal levels. And in the first two weeks of August, the east of Scotland received 160% of its normal total for the whole month, with Herefordshire getting just 20%.
Yields, therefore, had been extremely variable, depending on soil type and rainfall. In Essex, crops on light land died off in the spring, while those on better soil near the coast had vastly exceeded expectations, said independent agronomist Charles Malone. “I wasn’t expecting any crops over 7.4t/ha at one time before the rain; and light or clay soils certainly haven’t done well. But while the heavier soils haven’t produced record crops, they were a lot better than expected.”
Rain in June came at just the right time for ear emergence and flowering, he said. “So the grain sites that were there filled well.” However, many crops had lost tillers in the drought so head counts were down. And new green tillers, sprouted after the rain, made combining hard work, he added. “People have had a lot of trouble with the straw and unripe crops.”
Fortunately, the hard winter and dry season meant there had been very little disease pressure. “There are lots of fungicides sitting in peoples’ stores because they didn’t need to use them.” Take-all had not posed much of a problem in second wheats, but white heads from fusarium were present in many crops from mid-June onwards. “It didn’t seriously affect yields, and DON (mycotoxin) levels were low.”
In Lincolnshire, yields had been similarly variable, said Ben Atkinson at Grange Farm, Rippingale. “The drought seems to have exaggerated any inherent problems in the fields, so good land has been better than expected and poor land is perhaps worse than expected.”
Wheat had yielded close to 10t/ha on heavy fen land, with thinner brash soils at 8.6t/ha. “Oakley has done well again, against all the odds, as have Conqueror and Santiago, but it’s very difficult to pick between varieties this year – it’s definitely been more about soil type.”
Yields in Shropshire had been fantastic, with many farmers enjoying above average crops, said independent agronomist Bryce Rham.
“We had very good establishment last autumn, and the cold winter and dry spring meant the crops kept on rooting. Because they were early heading they had a long grain fill period – and a week before T2 we had a really good fall of rain, followed by enough to see the crops through to the end of June.
“The wheat took up all the nitrogen that it couldn’t take up in March and April, resulting in great big grains with a bushel weight of 84-88kg/hl.” Yields ranged from 7.9t/ha to over 12.4t/ha, with heavy, fertile soils performing significantly better than light or tired land, he said.
Farmers were now desperate for rain to help oilseed rape germinate. “Shropshire is like a dustbowl. A lot of farmers have never seen it so dry, even after the summer of 1976. Unless we get some decent rain it’s going to be a real problem.”
In HGCA trials to 27 August, wheat yields were 9% below average at 9.35t/ha, with the West of England performing better than the East, said Recommended List manager Simon Oxley. Generally, yields in the East averaged 9.6t/ha against 10.4t/ha in the West.
“However, averages don’t tell the whole story. In the East, yields show greater extremes; we had the best yields after peas on heavy soil from Kent at 13.4t/ha, with the lowest yield of 6.9t/ha coming from a second wheat site on light soils in Suffolk.”
Further west, yields were less variable, ranging from 9.6t to 11.1t/ha. As Crops went to press, very few trial sites had been cut in the North, but yields were likely to boost the overall average closer to the five-year mean.
In Group 1 trials, Gallant yielded slightly below its five-year average, at 97% of the control yield. “It is an early variety so may have been less able to benefit from the late rain,” said Dr Oxley. Sterling remained the highest yielding Group 2, with a score of 107%, while Einstein – another early developer – had dropped back to just 94%.
Cocoon topped the Group 3 varieties, at 110%, with Conqueror, Santiago and Oakley performing best of the Group 4s, at 112%, 111% and 110%, respectively.
Breadmaking candidate varieties yielded well, with Chilton, Saxtead and Crusoe at 100-101% of the mean, against Solstice and Gallant at 96-97%. “But milling quality is yet to be proven.”
Biscuit candidate Torch had a good year, at 107%, but its susceptibility to yellow rust was something to watch, he added. “None of the feed candidates stood out compared with the established varieties, with Solo at 108% and Gator and Horatio at 107%.”
Rob Sanderson, head of central store development at Openfield, said milling wheat quality this year was extremely good. “Protein contents are higher than normal, especially in the East where yields were down.” Group 1s averaged just over 13% protein, with Group 2s a fraction below that. “Hagbergs are all over 300.”
Although most Group 1 and 2 varieties were cut in good time, later crops had suffered in the wet weather. “Wheat that came into store at the end of August was down to 220-240 Hagberg, so it was definitely still usable.” Specific weights had also fallen a bit, but having started at such high levels, were not posing a problem, he added.