‘Bloody grim’ - Brutal start sees crop yields tumble across East Anglia

A bleak picture is emerging across East Anglia as cereal harvest draws to a close Picture: JULIE KEM

A bleak picture is emerging across East Anglia as cereal harvest draws to a close Picture: JULIE KEMP/IWITNESS - Credit: JULIE KEMP/IWITNESS

East Anglian farmers fear they are facing some of their worst harvests since the great drought of 1976 as crops come in.

Pea harvesting in Elmswell Picture: DAVID LAMMING/IWITNESS

Pea harvesting in Elmswell Picture: DAVID LAMMING/IWITNESS - Credit: DAVID LAMMING/IWITNESS

A bleak and extraordinarily variable picture is emerging – with high yields in one part of the field versus exceedingly low ones in another, and some fields doing quite well and others badly.

Farmers are now trying to piece together how it all went so horribly wrong. They were already braced for a bad harvest after a sopping wet winter and a bone-dry spring. But until they went out into the fields with their combines and saw the numbers for themselves, they were hoping it might not be as bad as they feared after the weather picked up following a dreadful start.

MORE – Farmers distraught as harvest yields plummetHowever, while undoubtedly there are farmers who will be breathing a sigh of relief as they achieve average or near-average yields – with some even celebrating high ones – a number are reporting significant drops and wide variations.

“It’s pretty bloody grim,” admitted Stephen Rash, who farms at Wortham, near Diss.

A combine at work in Hadleigh: farmers are reporting startlingly wide variations in yields Picture:

A combine at work in Hadleigh: farmers are reporting startlingly wide variations in yields Picture: PETER CUTTS/IWITNESS - Credit: PETER CUTTS/IWITNESS

This was his 49th or 50th harvest and this year probably figured among three of the worst he had experienced – the other two being 1975 and 1976 – both drought years, he said.

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“The barley is down by 20 to 25% on normal, the same with the wheat,” he said.

The picture is still emerging as he still has some spring barley left to combine, but oilseed rape in particular has taken the brunt of the bad weather combined with pest infestation, he said.

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Since the European Union placed a ban on neonicotinoids – a pesticide used to coat oilseed rape seeds to protect them against attacks from cabbage stem flea beetles – farmers have struggled with the crop, but this year has been particularly brutal.

“Oilseed rape is a total disaster. If you take it on the area we planted it was 0.25t/ha (yield). If you take it on the area we harvested it’s 1.25t/has but we only harvested 5ha out of about 40ha because the rest was lost to cabbage stem flea beetle. The farm we look after next door he had 40 acres of rape and none of it survived to harvest,” said Stephen.

Instead the crop was ripped out and drilled with either spring barley or a cover crop, he said.

“Our winter beans were disappointing. They did about 1.25t/ha (compared to an average of 1.5-2t/ha).”

He described the situation as “disappointing but not surprising”. “It has been a pretty poor year all in all,” he said.

John Collen, who farms at Gisleham, near Lowestoft, had some spring beans and some spring barley left to harvest. His oilseed rape was in and below average at roughly 3t/ha compared to 3.6 or 3.8t/ha – but this did not include 100 acres – or 10% of his growing area – of OSR which were ripped up due to flea beetle infestation, which would bring the total down to 2.6t/ha. The already weakened crop was attacked by the pest – and by pigeons, he said.

His bright spot was his barley which grew on heavy land and yielded 10t/ha compared to an average of 9t/ha, but it was now being sold into a depressed market due to the uncertainty surrounding a no-deal Brexit, he said.

His wheat harvest was a hugely mixed bag, and ended up 1,000t down he said. Overall it fell in the region of 7-7.4t/ha compared to an average of 9.3t/ha.

“It’s the biggest drop we have seen for 20 years,” he said. “I’m trying not to be too black, but it’s a fairly dark harvest.”

There had been some “exceptionally good wheat yields” but there was “massive” variation, he said. In one field alone, he saw yields plummet from 13t/ha in one area, to just 3-4t/ha in another. “The variations across the field – I have never, never seen anything like it,” he said. “My father was on the combine with me. He’s 82 and he’s saying he’s never seen that variation.”

On the upside, his sugar beet crop was looking “very well” on heavy land, but he had seen crops which were looking very poor at the moment, he said.

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