A DAMPENER ON YIELD
This dismal summer has a lot to answer for. Gilly Johnson weighs up its impact on the rape and barley harvest in England and Wales.
IT HAD looked so thick, lush and promising. But come harvest, rape failed to deliver the goods. The national crop weighs in light – about 10% down on last year, according to Martin Farrow of United Oilseeds.
He wasnt too surprised – "a good-looking rape crop never yields anything much". Growers shouldnt be too disappointed, he adds. The past two seasons have produced record results, and raised expectations; average yields went to 3.6t/ha (29 cwt/acre) and beyond.
The 1998 harvest puts the crop back into line with long-term figures. The national average, according to Mr Farrows data, will work out at about 3.25t/ha (26 cwt/acre); "a respectable result. We cant really complain".
Disease was not the culprit. It was bad weather which kept the lid on yield – and not just through widespread lodging. There was too much rain at the wrong time, and not enough sun.
Although many crops did come through the mild winter rather too thick than most agronomists would advise, that might not have been such a disadvantage, had it not been for heavy rain at flowering.
Some rape went over at that point, and those fields which lodged early suffered additional yield losses. Even where the crop remained upright, the constant wet did not help pollination, reckons Liz Williams, rape breeder with CPB Twyford.
"Although pods were reasonably chunky, there werent as many seeds as wed like. That points to adverse weather at pollination."
Without summer sun, the crop couldnt catch up on lost ground, and so yield potential was capped.
The best performing region (excluding Scotland) is East Anglia, where average yields have managed 3.41t/ha (28cwt/acre), according to the United Oilseeds survey. Last year some crops managed to break the 5t/ha (40cwt/acre) barrier – not so this harvest, says Mr Farrow, even from the high performance hybrids. "The best result weve heard about is 4.75t/ha."
With 3.1t/ha (25cwt/acre) from a crop of Licrown, Herts grower Roy Vigus is somewhat disappointed. Its not up to the 3.7t/ha (30cwt/acre) he saw last year, but at just above the farms five-year average, the news could have been worse.
"We switched to Licrown, but it hasnt done as well. It had a very long flowering period. I think well go back to Apex."
In the south-west, the rain was most damaging. Average yields are back by about 17% on last year, according to United Oilseeds figures.
Pembrokeshire grower Meurig Raymond hasnt fared as badly – his yields are down by 10%. But hes unhappy with 3.7t/ha (30cwt/acre) from a crop that was "the lushest Ive seen". Ironically, for once there was no autumn pigeon damage. "The pods were there, the potential was there. It just didnt give us the yield."
Apex stayed standing, but the Contact lodged and yield was down. Pronto and Capitol came in at 4.2-4.3t/ha (34-35cwt/acre). Synergy gave barely over 2.5t/ha (1t/acre) – "I dont know what went wrong with it."
At least no drying costs were incurred. Mr Raymond swathed the rape and picked it up dry – a complete contrast to last year which was the most difficult, wet harvest hes ever tackled.
The combine had to dodge the showers over in Hants. Julian Gibbons of Bradley, Alresford, had to put all his rape through the drier. The overall average – 3.15t/ha (25cwt/acre) – was pulled down by a poor result from Contact, which lodged following snow in April.
Another variety – Columbus – matched the farms 5-year average of 3.5t/ha (28cwt/acre).
"Rape looked a cracking crop and thats always something to be wary of. With the benefit of hindsight, it was just too thick. If only wed taken note of what was being said about canopy management in rape at Cereals 98, we might have saved ourselves some money on nitrogen…."
Spring rape results are looking surprisingly good, particularly considering high disease, he adds. "So far we are seeing 2.2t/ha, which is on par with last year."
In the north, continuous rain has taken its toll, and yields are down by 15% or so. N Yorks grower Mervyn Petch farms at Stokesley, just south of Middlesbrough. His yield of Commanche, a stiff variety which usually suits northern conditions, suffered from "continuous wet" at flowering to manage 3.3t/ha (27cwt/acre).
Hybrids havent done as well as last year. Reports from round the regions show that although yields are generally higher than from conventional rape, the gap has narrowed. Of the new hybrids, Pronto has the edge.
Prices prospects for rape are "flat", according to Mr Farrow of United Oilseeds. "World stocks are plentiful." He predicts UK rape plantings will be up this autumn, as growers abandon winter barley, but isnt sure by how much.
WINTER barley doesnt like wet feet. Traditional folklore, borne out by the bad harvest.
Yields are mediocre at best. Grains are small and many crops will fail to meet the 62-63kg/hl intervention standard.
What went wrong? The pundits agree that winter barley established well. Only too well, in fact. It came through to spring with abundant tillers, draining energy reserves from the crop.
"We reckon tillering was 25-30% greater than normal," says Dalgetys David Neale. "Then the spring was wet, rooting was shallow and lodging started. It was particularly bad on heavier land."
The wet June and lack of sun when the grain should have been filling nailed the lid in the coffin. "Winter barley had a raw deal all the way through the season," says Mr Neale.
Possibly 20% of winter barley samples could fail to meet the 62-63kg/hl intervention standard, suggests Robert Kerr of Glencore Grain. "Intervention is putting the floor on the market for November with £75-76/t. Barley that doesnt make the grade could lose £10/t. If you have a 2t/acre crop, barely making £60/t off the combine, its hardly worthwhile."
Preliminary average specific weights for barley are the lowest ever recorded by the HGCA in its annual survey, at just over 63kg/hl. Small grains are also high – averaging 6.3%.
But not all winter barley is a disaster area. Herts grower Roy Vigus found Fanfare did 5.9-6.1t/ha (48-49cwt/acre), with a respectable 66-67kg/hl bushel weight, despite some lodging. Not having to dry the barley was a bonus. He hopes to sell for a malting premium at the end of the year.
In Oxfordshire, Nick Hampson found yields were 0.5-1t/ha (4-8cwt/acre) down – at 6.2t/ha (50cwt/acre) – on what he would normally expect. The farms average at Barton Lodge, Lockinge, was pulled down by a flat field of Regina.
"We did apply growth regulators, but they went on rather late," he says. "But the Fanfare and Muscat stood up well."
Strobilurin chemistry appears to have paid off on winter barley in terms of bushel weight. James Clark of Sandway, near Maidstone, Kent, applied some to his Fanfare. It boosted yield by 1.2t/ha (10cwt/acre) and raised bushel weights.
Dalgetys David Neale reckons that the expensive fungicides did pay their way this year. "We saw two neighbouring crops of Muscat, one grown under a low input regime, and one with strobilurin chemistry. The difference in bushel weight was 50kg/hl as compared with 62kg/hl."
In the west, many of Meurig Raymonds neighbours in Pembrokeshire will question whether to continue with winter barley after this harvest. "We will carry on; it fits in with the rotation. But yields are down by about 10%."
Disease was difficult to control in 1998, says Mr Raymond. "Rhynchosporium and net blotch was rampant. We had to spray three times." Thankfully, the straw was good, making £32-36/t – a bonus on last year.
Best performance was from Hanna and Vertige, both over the 7.4t/ha (3t/acre) mark. Regina came in below. Muscat was "a complete disaster. It did 50cwt/acre, and came in at 59-60kg/hl."
Mr Raymond decided to take the combine through early – and dry grain down from 18%.
The story on spring barley comes as some relief. The English malting barley regions report a good quality crop, with yields not too far adrift from last year.
Stuart Agnew of Fakenham, Norfolk, brought in 4.9t/ha (2t/acre) of Chariot, all with good quality and no screenings.
In Hampshire, Alexis turned in a top quality malting sample for Julian Gibbons of Alresford, with low nitrogens and screenings – though all the barley had to go through the drier.
In the west Mr Raymond reckons that early sown spring malting barley has been the "jewel of the harvest". Although yield at 5.7t/ha (46.5cwt/acre) wasnt as high as he would have liked, bushel weights are high and colour excellent from a sample of Optic.
No major problems with skinning or splitting are reported this year. Trader Robert Kerr of Glencore Grain has seen "the best English malting samples for many years – the quality of Chariot and Optic is superb". UK market prospects are boosted by a wet and difficult Danish harvest, reducing the heap of foreign grain competing for malting markets.
But the sorry mix of poor yield, small grains and rock-bottom prices has left a bitter aftertaste from winter barley. Dalgetys Mr Neale reports that winter barley seed orders are down by 25% so far – though this might rise if later seed sales revive. "Most growers are taking the 5% increase in set-aside out of winter barley."
• The 1998 wheat harvest is reviewed in the 3 October issue.