Yields low – but quality looking good

Regular readers will have been on tenterhooks since last week wondering whether we have cut our peas and if my daily ritual of chasing pigeons off them has ended.

Well, you can relax. They’re in the barn being blown (by our new electric fan – we’ve been using diesel-powered fans until this year) to take out a little excess moisture ready for collection next month.

We pre-sold them on a human consumption contract, several months ago, for the attractive price of £250/t and by the look of the clean sample we should have little difficulty in complying with the conditions.

The yield was disappointing at around 2.5t/ha (1t/acre), but what can you expect in a year like this when 10% to 20% below budgeted yield seems to be the norm – in this area anyway.

At least we’ve sold the pea straw to a cattle feeder as a substitute for hay so that modest extra income will go a little way to making up the deficit.

But despite being relieved of the daily dawn-to-dusk pigeon patrol there are aspects that I miss already. Like disturbing a roe hind and her two young as they grazed one of our conservation headlands most mornings at first light; or the pleasure of watching eight grey partridge chicks grow from fluffy balls to little fliers over a period of weeks as well as a few clutches of wild pheasant chicks with their mothers; and the blackberries, hips and haws, and even sloes that have emerged, weeks early, along the hedges.

And so to winter wheat – also ready two to three weeks earlier than normal. The straw on later drillings is still green, so more on those later. But the biggest surprise, if the limited acreage we managed to combine before being stopped by storms is any guide, is the quality of the sample. Grains are big and bold and might even be worth a premium. But yields so far are low, about where we feared they would be and nowhere near the 9-10t/ha I’ve heard about further west.

There is, of course, variation according to the quality of the land. I remember my father explaining to me why light land farms always have the best houses. It dates back to the days when estates owned by big landowners let most of their land. It was also before artificial fertilisers and irrigation were introduced. Owners could always let heavy land that held its moisture and would sustain a crop through a dry summer. But to let light land they had to build better houses to please farmer’s wives, he said.

Sitting on the combine during my relief-driving stints has dramatically illustrated that point. Sometimes within the same field. When you’re cutting on the best land the continuous yield read-out on the on-board computer, even this year, might indicate 10t/ha at times and you might believe you’re having a normal year. But then you pass over an area of lower quality land where the crop has died off and there’s secondary growth and the computer tells you the brutal truth that will bring down average yields to more modest levels.

But at least all our combinable crop fields will be worth combining. Not far from here I’ve seen fields of spring barley where there’s more second growth than first and several fields of beans where tall weeds outnumber bean plants by about 10 to one. I can’t think it’ll be worth even trying to harvest them.

David Richardson

David Richardson farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.

Read more from all our Opinion writers.