Planting figures defy all forecasts

New figures from DEFRA appear to have scotched predictions that farmers would cut back wheat plantings this season in the face of the single farm payment.

Excellent autumn drilling conditions saw England’s wheat plantings to 1 December slip just 4% on the year to 1.64m hectares, according to DEFRA’s December Survey of Agriculture.

The barley area was almost unchanged at 322,000ha while oilseed rape fell 5% to 471,000ha, not counting rapeseed grown on set-aside land.

Conditions were similar in Scotland, allowing farmers to drill 4% more wheat by December.

Scotland’s main crop, barley, slipped 1% to 97,000ha.

HGCA senior economist Julian Bell said the figures suggested farmers’ reaction to the single farm payment area was “more of an evolution than a radical change”.

The small drop in wheat plantings reflected farmers taking lower-yielding areas such as field headlands and awkward corners out of production.

But near-perfect drilling conditions had encouraged them to drill the rest, Mr Bell said.

“Even though single farm payments will be pared down in the coming years, first wheats still pay for many growers.

It’s most likely some farmers are choosing to drop second wheats and bypass smaller, isolated parcels of land.”

NFU chief arable adviser Guy Gagen agreed.

“Many of our members have said they have never known a season like it for autumn drilling.

It is difficult not to carry on when conditions are perfect.

“Wheat areas have been gradually falling year on year after a sustained period of poor returns.

But it’s difficult for farmers to react quickly when the shambles of the SFP has brought no clarity to make serious business decisions.”

It was possible greater effects of CAP reform might be more manifest in next autumn’s plantings, he added.

And there were positive signs emerging for other crops, said Mr Gagen.

“The recent announcement from Cargill, Greenergy and Tesco of a new biodiesel plant on Humberside suggests this country will not be at capacity for rapeseed crushing much longer.

This might send the message to farmers that there will be somewhere for rapeseed to go.”

Positive messages emerging from the market could help maintain crop production next autumn, said Grainfarmers’ seeds director Tim Hirst.

“World grain stocks are down, and it is unlikely the Ukraine will export this year.

With a small decline in wheat plantings, the UK’s exportable surplus might be only 2m tonnes in 2006-07, and we could get to import/export parity.

“And the situation with oilseed rape is exciting.

If biodiesel takes off, with massive potential in Europe we could double the rape area in this country, even on a 5% inclusion rate.”

Continental demand had helped rapeseed prices firm as Farmers Weekly went to press, said Glencore Grain’s Nick Oakhill.

“There has been a lot of rapeseed in the north and north-east sold into Europe for early next year, with growers paid £150/t for harvest movement.”

Spot prices had firmed to £145-£147/t ex-farm, he added.

“But wheat has remained at £65-£66/t and milling premiums of £5-£6/t probably can’t get any lower.”