On 20 July, I was depressed about the cold and rain we’d had since April.
But that weekend the weather changed. On Monday 23 July, temperatures were up in the mid-20s. The forecast for the next few days looked hot and settled so we tackled the delayed job of cutting hay.
The sun beat down on the thick swathe, much bigger than last year, and a few turnings later, within three days, we started baling. First the haylage on the water meadows where, I confess, the baler made ruts in low places and then, a day later, on with the upland hay.
It dried quickly because the sap had gone from the over-ripe grass. The protein content will be lower for the same reason. But the bales smelled sweet as we carted them into the barn – I can’t believe the horses for which the hay is intended next winter will find them unacceptable. Every bale was carted and stacked by the end of the week in bright sunshine without a drop of rain falling on them.
Meanwhile, the Cassia winter barley was ready to cut. We started combining on the Wednesday and had finished the 50ha by Friday evening. It all came into store at under 14.5% moisture, so no drying was needed, and it yielded above budget at an estimated 8.5t/ha. Most in this area appear to have experienced similar crops and are well pleased, although some have had loaded trailers stuck in wet places, where drains have failed to take away the excessive rain.
I find it remarkable that our team of contractors, equipped with modern machinery, can get over so much work in such a short time when the weather permits. The fact it turned wet again after we’d brought in all the hay and barley that was fit to gather didn’t bother us, although I suspect we’ll be looking for another spell of hot, fine weather for the wheat harvest by the time you read this.
The pause in combining gives time to consider the market. The barley is sold on a pre-harvest contract and will be shifted in the next few days. We need the storage space for wheat and early payment for cashflow reasons. We won’t hit the top price seen in recent days as the world panicked over drought in the American Midwest. But we won’t be too far below, and part of the reason for growing winter barley is to spread the harvest and gain trading convenience.
But where is the price of wheat headed? As already suggested, it depends more on what happens elsewhere in the world than on the UK harvest. Incidentally, from observations so far, I don’t think UK wheat yields will be as consistently encouraging as the winter barleys have been. But there are bigger problems in key grain growing areas around the globe that should help maintain current levels.
Apart from drought in the USA, which most pundits say is too well-established to be reversed by rain now, there is a shortage of moisture in Russia and Kazakhstan that is likely to reduce future exports of wheat. In India, the monsoon is weak, and Australia is anticipating an El Nino that could lead to drought during its wheat planting season.
When prices dipped sharply the other day, I asked my favourite grain merchant if that was the end of high values. He replied that it wouldn’t be over until the fat lady sings. And she hasn’t tuned up yet.
David Richardson farms about 400ha of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.