All things considered, Jake Freestone is reasonably optimistic about the prospects for Overbury Farms’ cereals harvest, which is now underway.
“It’s still early days, but things will definitely be better than I had feared in mid-May. We only had 8mm of rain in March, but May and June brought 60mm in total.”
All wheat crops at Overbury are first wheats and most are grown for milling, with a small area of Group 3 wheat. But the farm’s widely varying soil types mean the effects of this spring’s drought will be much more apparent in some crops than others.
“Wheats on our heavy Lias clay ground are Gallant and Solstice, and they were in the budget to do 8.75t/ha. I had rounded these down to about 8.5t/ha by the middle of May, but I’m a bit more confident now. In fact, the crops on our heavier, moisture-retaining soils have looked a picture all the way through.” In fact, Mr Freestone is growing increasingly confident that wheats on the heavier land will outperform his budget and could manage 9.5t/ha (see tables).
“All wheat on this land is Gallant. There were two main reasons for that. The first is that this ground is of limited yield potential anyway, so I’m trying to increase my margin with a higher-value crop. And Gallant is an earlier-maturing variety than Solstice, so in a normal year I can count on it ripening earlier than Solstice before this sand-and-gravel soil runs out of moisture. Having said that, this year, it had its flag leaf out in the last week in April.”
Ears were out by the middle of May, and Mr Freestone reckons most of his Gallant has sacrificed two tillers a plant to keep going. “Reluctantly I’ve had to revise yields on this land back as far as 6t/ha – 25% down. I had to make that judgement before the end of May, when I was considering what to do about the crop’s last fertiliser dressing.”
Accepting a significant yield reduction, but still anxious to maintain grain protein, Mr Freestone cut back the crop’s total nitrogen treatment to 160kg – a significant drop from the 220kg, plus a late liquid dressing, that the crop would normally receive. “I think that has to be about right, given that we’re likely to be 2t/ha short. I did give it a top-up of liquid N when we went through with an earwash fungicide.”
In a further effort to reduce variable costs on a shrinking yield estimate, Mr Freestone has altered his fungicide strategy on the lightest soils to afford the crop enough protection while maintaining a margin. “So this crop has had no strobilurins at all this year, and only a generic triazole product on the flag leaf. There’s clearly not going to be a sufficient yield to justify a more sophisticated programme, but it’s worth protecting the investment we’ve made to date in this crop.”
On the farms’ higher Cotswold brash land, Scout and Invicta wheats have received a more modest yield revision. Mr Freestone expects most of these fields to return about 9t/ha in an average year. “On balance I’ve reduced this expectation by 0.5t. I’ve kept with my fertiliser programme, up to 200kg/ha, but played around with fungicide programmes a little bit.”
Overall, Mr Freestone is resigning himself to accepting a 10% average reduction in yield across his entire wheat acreage. “I’m growing about 335ha of milling wheat at, say, 8.75t/ha – so 2,931t. That’s about 200t short of where I had originally budgeted we might be. It’s not as bad as it could have been.”
However, a shortfall of 200t – just under seven articulated lorry loads of grain – is still income Mr Freestone will be loathe to forego. At a price of £182.50/t, which he achieved on the quantity he sold forward, the lost yield would be worth £36,500 to the Overbury Farms business.
“I haven’t sold as much forward as I might have done at this time of year. For 2011 I’ve committed about 25% of our harvest, but in a typical year I could be about 40% sold at this stage. As well as locking into a price I like, selling forward is linked to cash flow requirements, such as when Overbury Farms’ rent is due to the estate.”
Happily, even if this season has meant Mr Freestone will have a smaller heap to market, he’s less worried about meeting milling specification. “I’m confident in the quality of our milling wheats, even if we do have to accept a significant yield reduction as a result of the drought. When we did get some rain in June it certainly helped grain development and size, so specific weights should be OK – that was a fear of mine earlier in the season.”
Harvest movement of some grain is also important in managing Overbury Farms, although the business is equipped to store nearly all the grain it produces. “This year is a little bit more complicated, as I have a slightly bigger area of oilseed rape, and I will need to get some of that gone. I also need space to be able to rotate crops within our stores as delivery falls due – for instance I have some wheat on the book for March 2012, so I need that at the back of the store.”
Most of Mr Freestone’s wheat is traded through miller ADM, Frontier Agriculture and Openfield. But he’s increasingly making use of new media to keep in touch with market movements. “I follow a lot of people on Twitter – mainly commodity traders. And Gleadell’s smartphone app is very good.
“It’s also interesting to read what farmers in north America are saying on Twitter and other sites. I won’t necessarily base trading decisions on this information, but it’s interesting to learn that they’ve had to re-drill because of torrential rains, for example. I can see how these pieces of information will become important somewhere along the line.”
Follow Jake Freestone on Twitter – @No1FarmerJake or read his blog.
* Wheat area (all milling) 335ha
* Average budgeted yield 9.35t/ha
* Revised average yield 8.75t/ha
* Anticipated yield foregone 200t @£182.50.
* Net cash foregone £36,500