Not bad considering…

6 October 2001

Not bad considering…

Yes, the English harvest is disappointing – but arguably it could have been worse. Gilly Johnson considers the implications


LETS put this harvest into context. We must remember that it follows the wettest autumn, winter and spring on record. The gloom and doom contingent had been predicting a major shortfall in our national wheat tonnage, dipping down as low as 11m tonnes, two-thirds of what was achieved last year. Heres what good news there is: its not that bad.

The NFU has released an 11.5m-tonne figure, which is an underestimate possibly influenced by market considerations, says the trade. The official UKASTA total hovers around 12m tonnes, and this is likely to be nearer the final reckoning by DEFRA later on.

But whatever the exact figure, its been achieved despite a 20% hole in the wheat area, most of which ended up as spring barley or set-aside.

The wheat acreage would have been even smaller, had it not been for late drilled spring wheat, which played a key role as an emergency alternative to plug rotational gaps. There are no official figures as yet on how much spring wheat went in, but theres no doubt it has helped drag up the national tonnage with some surprisingly good results from a mixed bag of varieties, says Gary Sharkey of Grainfarmers (formerly SCATS). And where the yield is low, its offset by good quality.

Northants producer Ray Dalton, of Rockingham Castle Farms near Corby, was "highly chuffed" with 5.8t/ha (2.3t/acre) from 202ha (500 acres) of spring wheat Samoa, drilled between March to May as soon as the weather allowed. There was the added bonus of "super" milling quality – 15% protein, 300+ hagberg and a bushel weight of 80kg/hl – which brought him a grade 1 level premium.

So the dip in UK average wheat yield – about 0.8t/ha – is better than it might otherwise have been. The wet winter and spring hampered root growth, particularly on heavier land, but wheats on lighter, free draining soils, where the water table had not risen enough to drown out growth, were able to put down reasonable roots, and benefited from spring moisture. These crops have delivered better results.

"Yields in Hampshire and free draining areas are about on par with average; elsewhere were seeing wheats down by about 10cwt/acre," says Robert Kerr of Glencore Grain. "The difference between chalk land in the west and soggy eastern clays can be 1.5t/acre."

Theres extreme variation within fields, as well as between fields. Waterlogged patches have left yield holes picked up only too clearly by combine mapping.

Between fields, variable maturity underlies this years peaks and troughs, suggests John Blackman, plant breeder with CPB Twyford. Later maturing wheats escaped the worst effect of the harvest rains on quality. And earlier maturing wheats which were ready and combined before the rains did well; but where harvesting was rained off, quality suffered and bushel weights and hagbergs fell quickly as grains swelled and contracted under heavy rain.

Traders are seeing a fall in specific weights across the national crop, with the worst results in the south, says Andrew Barnard of Dalgety Arable. The HGCAs quality survey, which uses group 1, 2 and 3 varieties, puts average specific weights at 76.2kg/hl; down 0.2kg/hl from the three-year average. Reports of low bushel weights have revived arguments as to whether grain end users, particularly the feed compounders, are really justified in imposing discounts on grain samples lower than the 72kg/hl benchmark.

Poor hagbergs are ever a reflection of a difficult harvest, and this summer has taken its toll, with the worst weather hitting everything north of line drawn from The Wash to Bristol, says Mr Starkey.

Wheat samples are showing some big falls in hagberg; HGCA survey figures put the average at 217 compared to the rolling average of 262. But these averages hide disastrous problems in some regions, notably north Norfolk. Rain clouds have emptied over the county for most of August and September (see Robert Mores experience in his Farm Diary, page 27).

Whether any one variety has suffered more than others is an open question. Initial reports of poor quality in Claire could be a reflection of the fact this wheat is popular and so is highly visible, rather than any intrinsic weakness in the wheat. Breeder Bill Angus of Nickerson points out that the sprouting trigger would have been the very hot spell in July. Could this have had a worse impact on early maturing Claire? NIAB figures dont bear this out; Claires hagbergs over the range of regional trials are averaging out at a respectable 216, compared to Consort at 195 and Riband at 161. Drilling date is probably playing a role – Claire is a favourite for the early drilled slot.

With average yield down by 0.5t/ha in his trading area, Mr Sharkey is not surprised to report a corresponding rise in protein, by about 0.5%. Malacca, the popular bread wheat which can show low proteins, has benefited.

Other success stories this harvest belong to those early drilled wheats in the Midlands, he concludes. "These came in with better yields than last year." Second wheats, particularly those on heavy land, have not fared as well.


ITS survived the season better than wheat. Some quality problems with Scottish spring barley are spoiling the crops chances, but in the main barley has come through less affected by the wet winter and delayed harvest. But this statement must be made with apologies attached to those still struggling to harvest the crop in Norfolk and the north…

The lower winter barley area was offset by a huge rise in spring barley, much of which was grown as an emergency measure. This will carry the national barley harvest up to what is predicted to be 6.4m tonnes, similar to last year.

"Winter barley yields started well but tailed off as the heavier land was harvested," says Dalgetys Andrew Barnard. However, grains are bold and there are few screenings – probably due to good weather during the grain fill period. It seems that the summers sun and rain sequences were badly timed for the wheat, but suited both winter and spring barley in terms of grain fill. "We havent seen any needles, or pinched grains this year – however, there are some germination problems already, probably down to poor storage," warns Richard Whitlock of Banks Cargill.

The HGCAs quality survey puts the winter crop at 2.6% and spring barley at 2.5% screenings, which compares very favourably with three-year averages of 6.1% and 4.7% respectively. Specific weights are also up by 1kg/hl.

Malting quality of the winter barleys is reasonable. Pearl and Regina dominate here; both came in with lower nitrogens (about 1.70%) than last years highs.

English spring barley, mostly Optic, is showing higher nitrogen and good ear retention for the early cut crops. Later harvested barleys have suffered, with many failing on nitrogen, and showing signs of splitting, says Mr Barnard.

The spring barleys in Scotland are more problematic. Although yields "arent bad", some of the spring crop will be downgraded to feed, says Mr Whitlock. The reasonable quality of southern spring malting barley could depress premiums. These have already dropped back from £20 to the £10/t range.


ITS a disappointment. Yields are well down – by 18%. Higher prices are the only sweetener for what must be one of the most disappointing rape harvests seen in a long time.

However, there are echoes of the wheat story, in that spring rape, drilled to fill the gaps after winter plantings were rained off, has done better than might have been expected.

"Although it can be a case of a late harvest, weve seen crops give at least 1t/acre which justifies the decision to grow spring rape, instead of abandoning land to set-aside," says Glencores Robert Kerr.

Oil content and quality is good; there are no reports of immature seed.


IF THERES less wheat about, then surely grain prices must rise? Many growers appear to be holding onto stock, in the hope that the market could lift. This is over-optimistic, says the grain trade.

The explanation lies with cheap imports. "To date, imports are outstripping exports with both feed and milling wheat being available to the UK from Germany and Denmark, and Eastern European wheat being traded into Ireland. All of these origins are cheaper than, or as competitive as, UK grain to those regions which are in deficit," says Dalgetys Mr Barnard.

Although the UKs exportable wheat surplus is reduced from the 4m tonnes last year, it is still about 1.25m tonnes. With quality variable, its going to take time and effort for exporters to bulk up loads good enough to tempt the premium markets abroad – which depresses the market.

On malting barley, again the UK is being challenged by cheap, good quality grain from Denmark and Germany which is going to our export customers. But Mr Barnard is more bullish on prices later in the year, when exports could pick up. "A lot depends on growers attitude to marketing the crop – and theyve locked it away at the moment."

At least feed barley prices should not go any lower, because theyre at the floor of intervention level, says Mr Whitlock.

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