DRILLING WHEAT: Suppliers of spring wheat seed have been running out of supplies, it has been reported
DRILLING WHEAT: Suppliers of spring wheat seed have been running out of supplies, it has been reported

A “REASONABLE” cereal harvest has been followed by one of the most difficult autumn sowing seasons for many years.

Graham Ragg, from Mole Valley Farmers, has advised growers to order spring seed early to secure their first choice varieties at UK-grown prices.

Supplies of UK spring wheat seed for 2020 are running out and late orders are expected to be filled with imported seed, which may come with a price premium, says Mr Ragg. While spring barley seed is more plentiful, growers could end up paying an additional £50 a ton, compared with UK-grown seed prices. He recommended that orders for all spring cereals are placed as soon as possible.

“It has been extremely challenging to drill winter cereals in the North of England because of the high rainfall, of course,” said Mr Ragg. “It has been estimated that as much as 40 to 50 per cent of autumn seed may still be in the barn.

“Now growers’ thoughts are turning to drilling in January or early February, as long as the weather permits.

“This is a very unusual situation, especially with the advent of modern planting equipment that is better able to cope with land travel in harsh conditions. Those crops which have been planted are extremely vulnerable to slug damage due to the wet ground conditions, and establishment rates have not been encouraging.”

Post-Christmas planting carries an associated risk, he added.

“Winter cereal seed requires a vernalisation period, or cold snap in order to enter the reproductive stage,” he explained. “Later planting reduces the opportunity for this process to take place.

“However there are some positive aspects, as the practice carries a lower risk of slug damage and the prospect of reduced inputs of herbicides and aphicides.”

Alternative spring crops may be considered and Mr Ragg suggested that maize may offer potential, especially for dairy farmers. Genetic advances in plant breeding have produced varieties that can withstand tougher climatic conditions. A percentage of growers in the region will sow spring oats, but the crop’s niche market status is likely to limit the national acreage, he added. It is not easy to highlight lessons learned from this year because once again, growers have been at the mercy of inclement weather, Mr Ragg said.

“Few opportunities were available to get started on drilling. The most promising crops were sown soon after an early winter barley harvest, but planting at that time of the year leads to an increased possibility that the crop will succumb to winter diseases.

“Aphid infestation is another factor and that can lead to barley yellow dwarf virus.”

All the signs point to the total cereal harvest for 2020 being down on the average, he explained.

“We will have a higher inclusion of the typically lower-yielding spring plantings, which generally carry a 1 tonne/acre yield penalty, compared with winter-sown crops.

“This will be coupled with the reduction in output caused by the losses incurred in the autumn sowing season.

“Another factor is that post-Christmas drilling is not ideal and may not produce favourable results. Later-sown winter crops may fail to yield to the level of those planted at a more standard timing. There have been many disappointments this autumn and there will be a knock-on effect for the 2020 harvest,” said Mr Ragg.

2019 Harvest Review

THE winter barley from this season produced above-average yields this year and quality was also pleasing, with bushel weights at 72kg/hl-plus, said Mr Ragg.

Varieties performed well across the board, largely because the earlier harvest date for the crop allowed growers to cut while the weather was favourable. Meanwhile, the typically later-cut winter wheat bore the brunt of some of the worst summer weather. This led to both yields and bushel weights falling below average. Adding to the pressure on farmers, cereal prices have failed to match up to the previous year, said Mr Ragg.

“Wheat prices have been £15 to £20 a ton lower, compared with 2018. The export market was not buoyant and the UK pound was fairly strong until fairly recently, which compounded the issue. Another factor was that forage crop yields were positive and therefore the demand for cereals to supplement livestock diets has not been as high as it has in previous years.”