Wheat harvest: Highs and lows

Harvest 2009 has been a tale of two halves. The lucky south-east escaped the worst of the rain, both in establishing crops and during harvest itself, after an initially frustrating start.

But northern and western growers, just like last year, were left reeling from a summer battering from the weather.

Generally, first wheat yields have been good, although not up to last year’s bumper crops. But second wheats have struggled, perhaps not surprisingly given the conditions some of them went into.

In the south east, yields were above average and quality was excellent, said independent agronomist Richard Cartwright. “On the better ground yields averaged 12t/ha (4.9t/acre).” Milling wheat proteins were about 13%, with good Hagbergs and excellent bushel weights, he said.

Wheat harvest summary


  • Good first wheat yields, particularly in south and east

  • Decent milling quality


  • Difficult harvest in west and north 

  • Poor second wheat yields

That was despite two dry weeks at the end of June when many crops started to die off early. “I thought we wouldn’t be in for a particularly brilliant harvest after that – I’ve been surprised that the yields were so good.” Harvest was not easy, with showers frustrating combining attempts, he added. “People have had to dry a lot of the crop this year. But we didn’t suffer too badly.”

In East Anglia some farmers had enjoyed record yields, said agronomist Charles Malone. “First wheats have been pretty good, but second wheats have not been particularly exciting.” Many crops had looked very thin, and did not tiller well, but compensated by producing very bold grains with good bushel weights, he said.

In the Cotswolds, agronomist Brian Keen was also surprised by the yields, with milling wheat yielding up to 9t/ha (3.6t/acre) and feed wheat up to 9.5t/ha (3.9t/acre). “But second wheats have done very poorly because the dry spring and take-all – yielding about 7t/ha (2.8t/acre).”

A lot of the soil was damaged in last year’s wet autumn, and was in desperate need of sub-soiling to remove compaction, he said. “But the wet summer means that the very heavy soils, which need remedial action, are not really dry enough to do so.”

Further west, persistent and heavy rain was causing a sense of déjà vu, said agronomist Bryce Rham. “It reminds me very much of last year.” By 1 September farmers still had about a quarter of their wheat to combine in Shropshire. “It’s depressing, but not disastrous – yet.” Most crops were standing well, and grain size had been very large, with generally heavy bushel weights, he said.

With everything being cut at high moistures, farmers were facing high drying costs again. But yields had been good. “First wheats have done easily over 4t/acre (9.9t/ha), although they’re nothing like last year’s exceptional yields. But second wheats are a mixed bag, with some touching 4t/acre and some horror stories of 2.5t/acre (8.2t/ha).”

The dry spring meant second wheats on poor land did not take up inorganic nitrogen, while those on fertile soil performed much better. But take-all was a real problem, he added. “It’s the worst year we’ve had for some time. They just suddenly went, very quickly.”

Stuart Dolphin, managing director of Wrekin Grain, said milling wheat quality had been extremely variable, Hagbergs ranging from 120-300, and about half falling below 250. Battalion and Alchemy suffered particularly badly from sprouting, and some crops growing out as early as July.

Proteins were reasonable, but ranged from 11-13%, he said. “Yields were pretty good, so proteins have been diluted. Most samples will get some premium over feed, so it’s important to test everything, and try to keep parcels separate on farm.”

In North Wales farmers were still waiting for wheat to ripen in early September, said contractor Glyn Jones. “The crops haven’t been all ready, the moistures just won’t come down. It’s been easier than last year, but we’ve still had to go and grab it when we can.”

In the north east, farmers were just 25% through their wheat by 1 September, said Gary Bright, managing director of GrainCo. “Compared with last year it’s still going well, but Hagbergs have been noticeably dropping as the rain continues. Yields are about average, but the crops south of the Tyne are noticeably better than those north of the river, where it flooded so badly last year.”

However, with the crops in the east and south performing so well, overall quality was still good, said David Sheppard, managing director of Gleadell Agriculture. “Most of what was grown as milling wheat can be used for milling, so millers will probably maximise their usage of the UK crop this season.”

Proteins were 0.5-0.75% higher than last year, said Chris Tye, farm business manager at Dalmark Grain, Peterborough. “People are quite pleased that at least the quality is there, as it’s helping the marketability of the crops.”

Preliminary HGCA trial results put average yields at 10.9t/ha (4.4t/acre), slightly above the five-year mean. First wheats were generally good, but second wheats, which suffered from poor rooting over the wet autumn, followed by drought in the spring, were disappointing, said Jim McVittie, recommended list manager.

Although Group 1 variety Gallant had a poor year, its average yield was still well above Solstice, at a score of 100 against Solstice at 96 and the control mean of 100. “It is still a strong variety, and is the first new Group 1 to get straight on to the list since Xi19.”

Group 2 varieties Einstein and Cordiale now level-pegged on yield, at a score of 98, said Mr McVittie. “But Cordiale is more liked by the millers, so would be the obvious choice.” Battalion and Marksman were also comparable, with Battalion a useful variety for early drilling and maturing, and performing very well as a second wheat, he added. The candidate variety KWS Sterling could prove very interesting if it milled well, with a yield score of 102. “But it is very early days yet.”

Robigus performed well this year, but on average had a similar yield to the Group 3 variety Scout, which had better disease resistance. Invicta and Edmunds looked promising, with yield scores of 103, but were yet to prove their milling qualities, said Mr McVittie.

Once again, Oakley was the top yielder, with a score of 107. “It makes it difficult for the other varieties to compete.” But its susceptibility to yellow rust was a concern, he added. Duxford and JB-Diego put in further solid performances, scoring 103 each.



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