A year to forget for David Richardson

First the good news. We finished harvesting this year’s winter wheat by the date we traditionally reckon to start cutting the crop.

None of it has come in at moistures low enough to avoid drying, partly because most has been contaminated with green grains from secondary growth, but also because of the dull cool weather. But most has been around 16%-17%, none has been over 18% and a fair proportion about 15%, so reducing it down to 14.5% for sale shouldn’t be a major problem.

Indeed we haven’t fired up our continuous flow drier once this year, relying instead on our new electric fan and gas heater to blow through the timber and perforated metal floor of the store. We fitted the floor in 2009, replacing the bricks that had been there since the store was built years ago.

The addition of the automatic humidity control system has completed the job and so far we’re very pleased with it. Now all we need to worry about is the cost of electricity – and a bit of bottled gas.

Next the bad news. Average yields will be at least 25% down on our five-year average, perhaps more. And that’s despite the overall high quality of the grain – bushel weights are in the 80s – which is usually consistent with high yields. But not this year. The unbroken spring drought did its worst in this immediate area and the summer rain came too late to rescue the bulk of the crop – just to spoil the sample with green grains.

Thank goodness for higher prices, but even they won’t salvage hoped for margins because, like many others, we were persuaded to sell too much of this year’s crop forward before even current levels had been reached. Thankfully we didn’t sell more than we’ve harvested, as some did, but the quantity to sell at prices ruling now or in the future will be limited. That’s what you get for listening to pundits who tell you to lock in margins as soon as you’ve covered growing costs. It’s called risk limitation, but in a year like 2011 it could be called profit limitation.

The other disappointment is the quantity of straw left behind the combine. I’ve never seen so little, even in 1976 the last really bad drought year. Normally we bale what we need for horses, sell some to a neighbour on a straw-for-muck arrangement and chop the rest. This time we’ve been forced to restrict the neighbour and bale everything else for our own use. And we might still run out by next harvest if we don’t ration it.

The same is true of hay. Horses can be picky (or perhaps I should say their owners can be) and it’s our custom to make some of our grass into hay and some into plastic-wrapped haylage to give them a choice. The volume of both is seriously reduced this year and it’s gratifying to note that the July rains have produced what promises to be a useful second crop.

So, as soon as the forecasters indicate we’re in for a few days of fine weather we’ll be back in the hay field in the hope that we’ll make enough to avoid having to buy more at inflated prices to last through to next year. Once again, I suspect, it’ll be a close-run thing.

As I think I said in a previous column, this is a year I shall try to forget.

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.

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