Economic factors ‘may be behind decline in winter crops area’

A dusting of snow in West Suffolk. Fields at Risby.

A dusting of snow in West Suffolk. Fields at Risby. - Credit: Archant

Economic factors and practical considerations appear to be behind a decline in the area of winter crops planted across England and Wales for the second year running, a farming levy group believes.

A dusting of snow in West Suffolk. Fields at Risby.

A dusting of snow in West Suffolk. Fields at Risby. - Credit: Archant

The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) Winter Planting Survey estimates the area of wheat and winter barley in England and Wales, plus oilseed rape and oats in England at 2.66million hectares (Mha) as at December 1, 2015 - 100,000ha lower than in December 2014 and 300,000ha lower than in December 2013.

The changes look to be driven by economic and agronomic factors as planting conditions were again generally favourable last autumn, it said.

The survey estimates that 1.66m ha of wheat and 376,000ha of winter barley were planted across England and Wales, and 548,000ha of oilseed rape and 79,000ha of oats were planted in England only.

The area of crops planted was also 5% lower than the total area of wheat, winter barley, oilseed rape and oats harvested last summer.

A dusting of snow in West Suffolk. Fields at Risby.

A dusting of snow in West Suffolk. Fields at Risby. - Credit: Archant

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AHDB senior analyst Helen Plant market conditions and the new ‘three crop rule’ within the farm subsidy system which tries to ensure a variety of crops to benefit wildlife were factors.

“Market conditions continue to challenge the economics of the whole rotation, but especially oilseed rape, which shows the largest declines year on year,” she said.

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“While still an important break crop, the fall in area shows the increasing risks of growing oilseed rape are outweighing the potential rewards on offer from current forward prices.”

An increased interest in cultural controls for weeds and diseases, particularly black-grass, was also potentially a factor, along with continuing impacts of the three crop rule – acting as an incentive to hold land back for spring cropping or even leave it fallow.

The higher yields of winter crops were also worth comparatively less because of lower prices – increasing the incentive to plant spring crops.

The wheat area for England and Wales is 3% lower than the area harvested in 2015, but similar to the 1.69Mha reported in last year’s winter planting survey, which means the total wheat area is likely to be simiolar to that harvested in 2015, AHDB said, as the crop remains the mainstay of many rotations.

Oilseed rape crop areas in England have fallen by 10% to about 548,000ha. Unless spring plantings are substantially higher than in the last two years, this sets England up for the lowest oilseed rape area since 2009. The total area planted in 2009 was 536,000ha, of which 493,000ha was winter sown.

The winter barley area at 376,000ha was an estimated 2% smaller than the 383,000ha harvested in 2015 but remains above the 370,000ha harvested in 2014 and at a historically high level, although there are regional differences.

The oat area in England is estimated at 76,000ha as at December 1, 2015. This is around 5,000ha lower than the area reported in last year’s winter planting survey (81,000ha), suggesting a fall in winter oat plantings for harvest 2016.

The AHDB Winter Planting Survey has been a good indicator of the trends in winter cropping at the national level in recent years. Results for smaller crop areas such as oats or smaller regions should be treated with additional caution as they are subject to a higher level of uncertainty. AHDB will carry out a full planting and variety survey this spring on total areas for harvest 2016, with results released in the summer.

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