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Farmers battle 'absolutely baking' conditions to get 2018 harvest in

PUBLISHED: 13:19 27 July 2018 | UPDATED: 13:58 27 July 2018

Andrew Fairs of Fairking's combine at work on a wheat field as harvest gets into full flow Picture: ANDREW FAIRS

Andrew Fairs of Fairking's combine at work on a wheat field as harvest gets into full flow Picture: ANDREW FAIRS

Andrew Fairs

Drought conditions and a prolonged heatwave with soaring temperatures reaching above 30C are taking their toll on East Anglia's cereal, vegetable and sugar beet crops. Sarah Chambers reports

A jubilant Euston Estate cereal harvest team, from left, Pete Matsull, farm manager Matthew Hawthorne, combine driver Ian Denny and Oliver Tyrell, celebrate their record early completion of harvest on Thursday, July 26.  The combine is a Claas 750 on tracks with a 10.5m header and the two Fendt tractors are pulling Suffolk-built Richard Western trailers Picture: ANDREW BLENKIRONA jubilant Euston Estate cereal harvest team, from left, Pete Matsull, farm manager Matthew Hawthorne, combine driver Ian Denny and Oliver Tyrell, celebrate their record early completion of harvest on Thursday, July 26. The combine is a Claas 750 on tracks with a 10.5m header and the two Fendt tractors are pulling Suffolk-built Richard Western trailers Picture: ANDREW BLENKIRON

East Anglian farmers are expecting marked drops in yields across a range of crops as they battle the intense 30C-plus heat to get them in this harvest.

Although cooler conditions are predicted, they have faced an ever-present threat of fire breaking out in the tinder-dry conditions created by a fiercely hot July, as their machinery works flat-out. A series of crop fires have raged across the region, and many farmers have water bowsers out, following the harvest teams.

Elveden Estate, near Thetford, which suffered a crop fire this week in one field, said it lost about 7ha of straw with some minor damage to a contractor’s baler. Andrew Fairs at Fairking, at Great Tey, near Colchester, said he felt lucky to have escaped with one small outbreak, quickly dowsed.

But pluses for farmers have been the ease with which they have been able to combine, record early harvests and a lack of moisture in the cereal crops which has meant they have saved on drying costs. Along with higher wheat prices, this is likely to go some way to offset the expected poor yields.

Windrowing onions amid the dust at P G Rix (Farms) Ltd in the Stour Valley on July 20, 2018 Picture: SAM RIXWindrowing onions amid the dust at P G Rix (Farms) Ltd in the Stour Valley on July 20, 2018 Picture: SAM RIX

Andrew Fairs said he and the team, like many others, had been operating in “absolutely baking” conditions. Going across the different wheats growing in various fields, he had been struck by how star performers from previous years had done relatively badly while others had shone through. “I’ve been surprised by the variation of the quality between varieties,” he said.

On heavy and ‘good’ land, he expected wheat yields to be about 8% to 10% down, while on light land, he anticipated losing around 25% on his average. But the team was well ahead of its usual harvesting schedule, he said.

“We are 70% through our wheat harvest, which is unheard of, and which I’m pleased about,” he said. Meantime, offers for wheat for next harvest had risen to about £165 per tonne, compared to £140/145.

Meahwhile, the ground was so hard that any cultivation had 
been put on hold. “We are just going to wait,” he said.

Harvesting onions at P G Rix (Farms) Ltd in the Stour Valley on July 20, 2018 Picture: SAM RIXHarvesting onions at P G Rix (Farms) Ltd in the Stour Valley on July 20, 2018 Picture: SAM RIX

Euston Estate director Andrew Blenkiron and his team in west Suffolk were celebrating a record early finish on Thursday, July 26.

“Certainly a first for my 40-year farming career, finished harvest in July is generally unheard of, although I do seem to remember being told that they finished in early July in 1976,” he said.

“Wheat has been much as I predicted about 2.25t/acre (just under 6t/ha) so more than a tonne and a half to the acre behind our five year average, but much better than the 1.5t/acre that we got in 2011.”

On a positive note, quality was good with almost all of the samples being of good bread making quality and no drying required.

Andrew Fairs of Fairking's combine at work on a wheat field as harvest gets into full flow Picture: ANDREW FAIRSAndrew Fairs of Fairking's combine at work on a wheat field as harvest gets into full flow Picture: ANDREW FAIRS

However, sugar beet and forage maize, which the estate hadn’t been able to water, were “really struggling”, with maize “probably beyond redemption” with a 50% yield loss.

The beet could recover - if it can get a drink within the next couple of weeks, he said, but root crops overall had been hit, and he expected yields to be down and costs up.

Agricultural consultant Robin Limb said compared to last year’s record year for sugar beet, prospects weren’t looking rosy for the crop, and he expected that yields could fall from a high of 80t/ha last year, to 60t/ha this year.

“Heavy land and silt crops are holding up remarkably well - at present. Lighter land crops are already wilting by day, and may soon not recover overnight,” he said. With each day of high temperatures and lack of rainfall, yield prospects were diminishing, he said.

Andrew Fairs of Fairking's combine at work on a wheat field as harvest gets into full flow Picture: ANDREW FAIRSAndrew Fairs of Fairking's combine at work on a wheat field as harvest gets into full flow Picture: ANDREW FAIRS

Asked about production start dates and prospects for the crop, Colm McKay, agriculture director at British Sugar, said: “As with most arable crops, sugar beet has been affected by the exceptionally dry and warm conditions this summer. We will continue with our usual field assessments and will announce our campaign start dates in due course.”

Sam Rix, technical director at onion and potato specialists P G Rix (Farms) Ltd, which produces 22,000 tonnes of onions a year and 15,000 tonnes of potatoes and operates across the Stour Valley from Bures to Dedham said harvesting had only just started properly.

“We expect to be around 25% down on yield across all crops. It has been an expensive and difficult growing season so far. We will see what the weather brings over the next few weeks,” he said.

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