Cereal straw: Incorporate or sell?

With cereal straw prices hovering up to 40% higher than last year, more growers may be tempted to bale and sell their straw rather than chop it and incorporate it into the ground.

The temptation of making a fast buck may be too strong for many, but the decision has become less clear-cut because of the rising cost of fertiliser, says NIAB TAG‘s Ben Freer.

“Straw has a relatively high potash content, so growers have to ask whether it makes sense – when potash prices have risen to £300/t – to sell their home-grown nutrient source.”

Maintaining good levels of potash is vital to maintaining yields, Mr Freer says, and straw incorporation is a valuable and recognised method of reducing fertiliser input costs. Growers should consider whether they have enough potash in their soil if they are not planning to incorporate straw, Mr Freer says.

He advises those with an index of two or above that it may be economically sensible to bale and sell the straw, especially if they already have a ready market.

With a lower index, it may prove more cost-effective to incorporate straw, he says.

However, Mr Freer warns that incorporating straw will provide food and cover for slugs, which increases populations, and the recent tightening of measures for metaldehyde pellet use could restrict their control.

Edd Banks operates a 50/50 split between incorporating and baling wheat straw at Manor Farm, in south-east Cambridgeshire. He tends to incorporate second wheat straw and bale first wheat straw, which he then sells. But this year, Mr Banks says the split will be 75/25 in favour of baling, because of the high market price.

He sells about 40% of his straw to power stations and the remainder to livestock farmers in Shropshire.

This week, Mr Banks has sold 400t of straw to a farmer at £48/t. “They will send us a lorry. We’ll load the straw and it gets transported back – job done,” he says.

Mr Banks says baling also helps remove weeds such as wild oats and blackgrass by removing seeds. However, incorporating the straw keeps nutrients in the soil, adds organic matter and promotes good crop rotation.

To balance up the removal of phosphates on fields where straw is often baled, Mr Banks spreads sewage sludge once every three years to avoid a decline in soil fertility.

Wiltshire-based AICC agronomist Dan Dines says typically about 75% of straw is baled and sold in the West Country because of its livestock heritage. He predicts this will increase this season.

“Growers are more willing to sell when there is a reasonable margin in the price,” says Mr Dines, of Wessex Agronomy Services. “However, it’s important to look at the bigger picture, rather than just short-term economics.”

Some arable farmers in his area operate “muck for straw” exchange contracts with livestock farmers. These should continue, as they seem to work well for both parties, but there may need to be an adjustment for the higher straw price.

Mr Dines is concerned, however, that the straw shortage is tempting farmers to sell their rape or bean straw. “I’d advise my farmers to avoid selling non-cereal straws because they are a good way of putting some organic matter back into the ground,” he says.

Hay and straw prices have soared in recent weeks because of low silage yields, a lack of any carry-over stocks and an anticipated shortage of straw from the 2010 harvest.

The British Hay and Straw Merchants’ Association, says good-quality big square bale wheat straw is selling at £43-£70/t ex-farm, depending on location, with big square bale barley straw priced at £50-£80/t ex-farm.

***Are you planning to take advantage of the high straw prices? Join the debate at www.fwi.co.uk\strawprices 

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