A COLD, overcast and wet June has a lot to answer for. In terms of national tonnage, that month may have cost the country over a million tonnes of wheat this harvest – a bill which doesnt take into account its additional damaging effect on quality.
Early trade estimates are that the 1997 wheat harvest adds up to 14.8 to 15m tonnes – a lacklustre total – which would have looked worse had it not been for the 4% or so extra land coming back into cereals following last years cut in setaside.
Yields are at least 10% down across the regions, according to the annual survey undertaken by Dalgety Agriculture. That brings the average yield back down to 7.4t/ha (3t/acre). Last year it was over 8.2t/ha (3.3t/acre) – an all-time high.
Figures from Allied Grain agree (fig 1) with Dalgety estimates. As some consolation, they show that at least the industry has managed somewhat better yields than in the last difficult harvest in 1992.
Back to this year. Worst hit are the north and west, where a wet end to August put the seal on a season which proved challenging from start to finish – alternating between drought and flood.
Although the drought ended in June, lack of sunshine prevented good grain fill. Trade estimates are that bushel weights are well down, with feed varieties suffering most. As a result, many samples failed to meet the minimum feed specification of 72kg/hl, says Gary Hutchings of Dalgety Agriculture.
Combining was a stop/start affair for those in the north and west. Cheshire grower Colin Ford farms near Frodsham. After a promising start, his feed wheat endured "desperately bad" weather in June. The deluge set back fungicide spray programmes, allowing disease to take hold, which must partly explain poor yields.
Then came the rain in August, just at the wrong time. Although Mr Fords crops did not lodge, elsewhere in his region a lot of laid wheat was visible.
"Our grain was brought in between 16 to 22% moisture, and we had to put it through the drier – a cost we could have done without when prices are so low."
Farming medium sandy loam along the AI near Thirsk, Yorkshire grower Kevin Littleboy is cleaning and dressing some of his wheat to bring it up to a 72kg/hl specification. "Bushel weights in a few fields were in the 60s." There was a degree of lodging, with late combined wheat seen to be sprouting in the ear. On average, Mr Littleboys yields are down by about 0.7t/ha (0.28t/acre).
But the wettest harvest, and "one wed like to forget", has been in the west. Some wheat came in at 28% moisture for Pembrokeshire grower Meurig Raymond, of Trenewydd Fawr, near Fishguard. All the wheat needed drying. "We had 10in of rain in August, and much of the wheat lodged and brackled."
Yields are down by about 1.2t/ha (0.5t/acre) on the five-year average of 9.9t/ha (4t/acre). "Were struggling to reach 70cwt/acre this year," says Mr Raymond. "Thankfully, bushel weights are not bad – at about 72kg/hl."
Drying has not been necessary in most eastern regions, where wheat production fared best, being combined before the rain started. This area produced the highest average yields at 7.9t/ha (3.2t/acre).
Peter Howes farms near Royston, Herts. His grain came in dry and in good shape. "Yields were down but we should remember that last year they were exceptional. This harvest they are back to more average levels."
Mr Howes believes that yield potential was well down even before the wet June. "We had virtually no rain until June, so by then the damage was done," he suggests. "It was lack of water that limited yield. But crops did look good going into winter."
The dry spring meant nitrogen uptake was delayed, helping boost protein content of his milling wheats, up this year by over 12%. Bushel weights are also good.
Although Mr Howes and other growers have brought in good milling wheat samples, in general the trade is predicting a national shortfall this year. But its due to lack of quantity, rather than quality; on average the domestic crop has managed to scrape through the 250 hagberg standard, with lower specific weights (down by 2kg/hl) but higher proteins – up by 0.5%. Samples are variable. In the north the wet harvest has caused more quality problems. Dalgetys Mr Hutchings suggests an extra 250,000t of Grade 1 or 2 wheat will have to be imported.
The story on feed wheats is more problematic. In the north and west, bushel weights are well below the 72kg/hl standard routinely required by compounders and exporters, even for those crops harvested before the rain. A discount market is developing for poor wheat samples with specific weight below 68kg/hl. Merchants are reportedly offering about £2 to 3/t below feed.
In the south, where wheats fared better, average specific weight scores are still 4kg/hl below last year. Mr Hutchings predicts a market will materialise for grain travelling from the south to the north across country, as buyers hunt down reasonable quality samples.
Exporters will also be scouring the south for wheat that can make the 74kg/hl specification to satisfy Continental orders. But thats if orders can be found – traders are at a loss to predict where all the exportable wheat surplus of 3.5m tonnes will go this year. Everything is conspiring against the wheat export drive; the strong pound makes British grain considerably more expensive than other European supplies, and our quality is poor, says Mr Hutchings.
Global signals are equally pessimistic. The US is reporting a bumper wheat harvest, and there is talk of a return to subsidised exports (the Export Enhancement Programme) if Europe does not fall into line on world trade, says Mr Hutchings. Russia and much of Eastern Europe have bought UK wheat in previous years, but may not need to import this season because of good domestic harvests.
"The market will align itself, and most of the wheat surplus will be sold eventually, particularly as we do not have intervention to fall back on," concludes Mr Hutchings.
SURPRISE, surprise! Oilseed rape has pulled it off, with cracking yields around the regions. The shock is that of all the arable crops, it looked in the worst shape going into winter – plant stands were gappy and many fields were poorly established.
But come harvest, rape has produced a healthy yield – going against all the expert predictions. Oilseed rapes reputation for compensatory growth yet again proves justified.
Average yields are about 3.3t/ha (27cwt/acre), according to Dalgety. With the area planted thought to be slightly higher than last year, this gives a total crush of a little over 1.4m tonnes – one of the largest rape crops the UK has harvested. Whether it is a record tonnage is debatable; the final verdict must wait until official MAFF figures are released.
Martin Farrow of United Oilseeds is confident; hes putting his money on a record tonnage. The companys figures show higher average yields at 3.7t/ha (30cwt/acre). "Its been phenomenal – and we still dont really know why. Last year the rape harvest was excellent, and we put it down to good establishment. Thats another theory to bite the dust, because crops didnt get away well last autumn!"
The dry spring weather that so badly upset the fortunes of the cereal sector seemed to suit oilseed rape. Perhaps the dry autumn forced the roots down deeply, standing the plants in good stead to sustain the spring drought. May sunshine during flowering and pollination was useful, and then when rain arrived in June, pod growth raced ahead.
Around the regions, the best results are seen in East Anglia and the south-east, says Mr Farrow. The north and west fare less well, but this was mainly due to the wet harvest.
Even there, rape comes through creditably. In Pembrokeshire Mr Raymond had 100ha (250acres) swathed when over 114mm (4.5in) of rain soaked the laid crop in August. Some grain started sprouting in the pod.
So Mr Raymond was expecting harvest to be "a disaster – a salvage effort", but he was relieved to find yields still over 3.7t/ha (30cwt/acre). "At the end of the day, we lost about 10% of yield; it could have been a lot worse." Other crops in the region were 4.3 to 4.9t/ha (35-40cwt/acre).
In south Oxfordshire, John Tingey reports "the best rape weve grown" at 4.3 to 4.9t/ha (35-40cwt/acre). Only on one field where establishment was too poor to recover did yields suffer. Hes also at a loss to explain the high yields. "We did use autumn fungicides, perhaps this had an effect, although it wasnt a high disease year."
Even spring rape, for once, seems to have had a good season. Yields of over 2.5t/ha (1t/ha) are reported from Pembrokeshire. In Royston, Herts, spring rape was "the best weve ever seen" for Mr Peter Howes. The explanation lies with the exceptional June rainfall.
Quality of the UKs oilseed harvest is good, says Mr Farrow of United Oilseeds. "We had a few samples with admixture – a result of growers responding to lower prices by cutting back on herbicide. But in general it hasnt been a problem."
On price, traders are not sure what lies ahead. Oilseed markets in the UK are dependent on what happens with soya prices in the US. There are conflicting signals; soya carryover is low, but a record soya harvest is predicted in the US. Here in the UK, traders are predicting that when oilseed markets do start to move, there could be violent swings.
* OPES were high for barley this harvest – at least at the start of the season. The new high yielding winter malting varieties such as Regina and Fanfare tempted many new growers into the crop, and the area planted rose by about 10%.
But widespread lodging in some regions, followed by problems marketing the malting varieties took the shine off the barley harvest. Average yields at 6.34t/ha (2.6t/acre) are down, despite the promising newcomers.
Only in the east are winter barley yields up on last year, mainly due to drought pressure not being as bad as 12 months ago. The highest yielding crops come from the Midlands and west, but there is much variation from farm to farm.
Pembrokeshire grower Meurig Raymond saw a difference between winter barley sown early and that drilled in late October. Ironically, the later sown crop did better in terms of yield and bushel weight because it missed out on the worst of the spring drought, and the June rain came in time to do some good.
His winter barley yields average 1.2t/ha (0.5t/acre) down, at 7.2 to7.3t/ha (58-59cwt/acre). All the winter barley lodged in the August deluge. The straw harvest is barely over half what it should be; much has gone rotten.
While Mr Raymonds winter barley is for feed, many of the new winter varieties were grown with an eye to malting premiums. In general, nitrogen scores are high, with the average, according to Dalgety, on the borderline for malting at 1.73%. This means that much winter barley will not pass muster with the maltsters.
As consolation, average bushel weights are well within the specification for both the internal feed market and export – although down on last year – perhaps thanks to the advantage of being the first crop off the field, suggests Mr Hutchings of Dalgety. Screenings, at 7.3%, are less than half what they were last year.
With this grain quality, exports could save the day for winter crop prices. The trade is "quietly confident" that foreign buyers will want our failed winter malting barleys. "We are currently competitive on price, and the demand is there," says Mr Hutchings. Orders are expected from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Cyprus and Iraq, and the export season has started well, according to the trade.
Spring barleys have not fared as badly as the winter crop – or perhaps growers expectations were lower. Although average yields are down at just over 5t/ha (2t/acre), in some regions spring varieties have done reasonably well, particularly compared to last years drought-struck barleys.
It is quality rather than yield which is the problem. The spring market is traditionally a malting market but some nitrogens are too high, and there is a large percentage of pre-germinated, cracked and skinned grains this year.
There is debate on the cause of skinning, but it is thought to be weather related. When mature grain becomes wet, it swells, then shrinks on drying. If the skin does not swell and shrink to match the body of the grain, skinning occurs.
As a result, there could be a shortage of good quality malting barley before the end of the season, suggests Mr Hutchings.
That is no consolation to West Wales grower Mr Raymond, who relies on malting premiums to put the profit into his spring barley crops. When malting barley was being sold for £165/t, it was well worthwhile – at £135/t he is not so sure.
On land "which normally gives us 1.5% nitrogen grain with no problem," Mr Raymond is seeing spring barley samples returned with 1.8%. The explanation, he suspects, lies in the dry spring; the region had no rain between March and May. But yields are relatively good, because the crop was able to make use of the June rains, at between 4.9 to 6.8t/ha (2-2.75t/acre). The spring barley didnt go through the combine until September.
In total, the UK barley harvest should add up to 7.9m tonnes – slightly behind last year, but from an increased area. Carry-over stocks are high, which complicates supply and demand forecasts.
Mr Hutchings predicts that domestic malting demand will fall further this year, from 2m tonnes to 1.8m tonnes. This means the UKs exportable surplus is higher than last year, at 2.6m tonnes. Demand for barley for animal rations is rising, and so exporters will be targeting the compound feed market to soak up the surplus.