Positive results amid the ups and downs of a challenging East Anglian harvest
PUBLISHED: 11:57 01 September 2017 | UPDATED: 14:56 01 September 2017
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With East Anglia’s 2017 harvest safely gathered in, the region’s farmers have voiced satisfaction at their haul after the swings and roundabouts of an unpredictable season.
Earlier in the year, a drought in April and May – followed by scorching summer temperatures in June – prompted concerns for fields of withering wheat, barley and oilseed rape.
But the rains returned just in time to reinvigorate crops, with wheats typically yielding above average, and Norfolk’s barley growers in particular being hailed for maintaining their grain to malting specifications – something growers in other parts of the country have been unable to match.
For some, the intermittent heavy showers meant the added expense and effort of drying wet crops.
But there could be a significant silver lining to the wet weather, as the same rains which frustrated the cereals harvest have also created the ideal conditions for a bumper potato and sugar beet crops later in the year.
Agricultural management firm Sentry has completed its East Anglian harvest, and published figures for more than 5,000 hectares farmed across Norfolk and Suffolk, showing overall crop yields 3pc above budget.
Spring and winter barley yields came in at 100pc and 98pc respectively against budget, while spring and winter wheats were 120pc and 106pc, with an average moisture content of 15.1pc – a “surprising” figure after what many would consider a wet harvest.
Sentry Norfolk director John Barrett said: “I am pretty positive on the basis that the price is better than budgeted, and we are up quite considerably on oilseed rape and first wheat yields on heavy land.
“If you go back four or five weeks, I sold some wheat at £142 per tonne for harvest movement, and now it is £129 for immediate movement, so it has come down quite significantly on the back of a record Russian harvest, and also some slightly better reports on the American harvest.”
Andrew Dewing, chief executive of Aylsham-based merchants Dewing Grain said: “I think it is a vintage year for Norfolk, especially the coastal boys.
“With first wheats especially, the yields across the county have been very pleasing and above expectation. More importantly for Norfolk, it was a year where we were able to harvest our crop still holding the spec for milling wheat and malting barley.
“The best malting barley in the world is grown in coastal Norfolk, and it has come in at a time when the rest of the country has failed to produce the goods, so there is a big demand for Norfolk’s high-spec product.
“People might have had to harvest it wet to preserve the quality and there is a cost to drying it, but my experience from previous years is that it is best to cut it damp rather than wait for it to dry. If you leave it in the field the kilo weight drops and it gives you yield losses, as well as a price penalty for the quality.”
Andrew Blenkiron, estate director at the Euston Estate, near Thetford on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, said: “Our winter barley yield was about 10pc below average, which was anticipated because of the spring drought. The one thing that was better than anticipated was the quality. That was probably a function of the rain arriving just in time to fill the barley.
“It was a good harvest and no drying of the barley was needed. We got to it early before the worst of the July weather came.
“Wheat yielded at just about our three-year average, which we were very pleased with considering the drought and the extreme heat through early May and into June. We had five days in a row with temperatures over 30 degrees and it looked pretty sick, but luckily it had enough quality to fill it out.
“We did have to dry some wheat for the first time in many years, because we wanted to maintain milling quality. We harvested some at 19pc moisture, which probably costed us £10-£12 per tonne to dry by the time we have paid for the diesel and the extra time to put it through the dryer.
“That’s almost 10pc of its value, but the premium associated with milling wheat is about £15 per tonne, so we couldn’t risk leaving it in the field where it would start to germinate.
“All in all, it is swings and roundabouts. At the end of the year, if sugar beet does what it is expected to do, we will be quite pleased overall.”
Agronomist Andrew Melton, regional sales manager at Frontier Agriculture, added: “I would say we have had a far better harvest than we would have dreamed of in April, when we were struggling to find any moisture.
“The winter barley quality is surprising and the yield is pretty good as well. I would have thought most people have got a few extra tonnes than they hoped, and probably sold it for a bit more money than they hoped, so on balance, after an unsettled 18 months, I think everyone is fairly happy.”
A POETIC ANALYSIS
The ups and downs of this year’s harvest season have prompted a poetic summary from a leading Norfolk farmer.
Tony Bambridge, chairman of the county’s branch of the National Farmers’ Union, said: “We found it quite a challenging harvest, but the yields are pleasing. It is a year where we have had no records, but no disasters either.
“We had to dry our winter barley – something I have never done before in 37 years of farming. It has been wet, but it means there are some fantastic sugar beet and potatoes. You never ask a farmer about the benefit of the weather because it will always be too dry for his roots or too wet for his grains.”
Mr Bambridge said the 2017 harvest reminded him of a poem written in 1922 by AP Herbert, including the lines: “The Farmer will never be happy again; He carries his heart in his boots. For either the rain is destroying his grain; Or the drought is destroying his roots.”