Bread-making potential of UK wheat crop is best for a decade

An aerial view of a combine harvester working in a field.
Photo: Steve Parsons/PA Wire

An aerial view of a combine harvester working in a field. Photo: Steve Parsons/PA Wire - Credit: PA

The proportion of Group 1 variety samples hitting the high-quality bread wheat specification this year is the highest for a decade, according to the latest provisional results of the AHDB (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board) Cereals Quality Survey.

A total of 15,536 wheat samples had been analysed by September 24, cut-off point for the second provisional results, of which 46% hit the specification. James Webster, analyst at AHDB Cereals and Oilseeds, said: “With more results now in, covering a wider area of the UK, we are beginning to get a clearer picture of how the quality of this year’s harvest is shaping up.”

To reach the specification for high-quality bread wheat, samples have to meet or exceed three quality standards – a minimum specific weight of 76 kg/hl, a Hagberg Falling Number (HFN) greater than or equal to 250 seconds and a minimum protein content of 13%.

Last year, only 31% of all the samples analysed met or exceeded the requirements, chiefly due to lower average protein levels.

Looking at all of the samples, the revised provisional average protein level for 2016 was 12.5%. The protein level is only marginally lower than the level seen in the first release (12.6%) but still remains up on the 2015 results and three-year average.

The average HFN for all samples was 309 seconds, a decrease on the level seen in the first provisional results (319 seconds) but still above the level of the final results from both 2014 and 2015. In fact, this year’s HFN is one of the highest levels on record, with only five harvests since 1977 exceeding it.

However, specific weight remains below the three-year average and has also decreased compared to the level seen in the first provisional release. The overall average specific weight for 2016 is 76.7 kg/hl, possibly reflecting the increased proportion of Group 4 samples analysed compared to the first release (28% against 23%).

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Mr Webster added: “The high proportion meeting milling standards this year is likely to mean a greater proportion of the domestic crop being used in the UK flour milling industry.

“However, with a lower specific weight than in the previous two years, extraction rates are likely to be lower, which could also influence the amount of wheat required.”

For barley, the second provisional results again indicate a smaller specific weight and grain size than the three-year average, although they have increased on the first provisional results. The increase in the results may be due to the increased proportion of Scottish barley samples, which now account for 41% the (19,908) samples analysed to date compared with 18% in the first release.

As with the previous release the percentage of barley retained through a 2.5mm sieve is, at 91.9%, behind the three year average of 95.3%. However, there was significant variance in the samples analysed, with some retained levels as low as 75.4%. There is also a divide between winter and spring results, with an average retained level of 89.4%in winter barley samples against 93.6% in spring barley samples.

Nitrogen levels have also seen a dip compared to the previous provisional results, with an average of 1.58%. The drop in the nitrogen levels is probably due to the increase in samples from Scotland and the North of England which now account for 50% of the data.

Mr Webster said: “With the addition of more samples from Scotland and Northern England the second provisional release highlights the regional differences in nitrogen content. The average nitrogen content in Scottish barley samples, at 1.50%, is noticeably lower than the average level seen in England and Wales at 1.64%. That said, both are still above 2015 final levels.

“The difference in the nitrogen levels is reflective of the end use of grains from Scotland compared with those in England. A large proportion of Scottish grain goes into distilling which requires a lower nitrogen content than that required for brewing.”

The final 2016 Cereal Quality Survey results will be published towards the end of this month or in early November.