Farms gear up for 2020 harvest after narrowly avoiding catastrophe
PUBLISHED: 15:25 17 July 2020 | UPDATED: 15:25 17 July 2020
Combines are at the ready across East Anglia for what at one stage was shaping up to be a disastrous harvest.
But the weather – which had played havoc with constant winter rain, followed by a dry period which went on far too long to allow some seeds to germinate and plants to thrive – eventually came around to save the day.
In what’s likely to be an average – or in some cases a below average year – farmers will be breathing a sigh of relief at reaching the finish line with no further mishaps.
The Euston Estate at Thetford was among the first out of the starting blocks on June 30 – but its barley combining was brought to an abrupt halt by the rain.
Many of the region’s farmers will be preparing to make a start on their barley crop as soon as the rain abates – which could be as soon as Sunday (July 12).
But the wheat harvest is likely to face a slight delay – with harvest beginning in earnest in a fortnight or so’s time – as weather conditions have led to a slower ripening of the crop.
And farmers are still scratching their heads about what to do in the wake of the loss of a key pesticide in their armoury. With the first full year without controversial neonicotinoids – banned in the European Union – they are seeing a return of virus yellows on their sugar beet crops, which are carried by aphids.
It remains to be seen whether the return of aphids will be accompanied by a matching return in insects to prey on them – which it is hoped could restore the balance. But some farmers fear a build-up of the tiny insects, which might result in more disease problems next year.
Figures from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) suggest that the challenging weather has led to a marked decrease in the amount of wheat, oilseed rape and winter barley farmers were able to grow – with all their efforts redirected towards spring barley to try to salvage what they could from a terrible sowing season.
The British wheat area – at an estimated 1,363Kha – saw 25% decrease on last year, while winter barley decline by 34% to an area of around 296Kha. Oilseed rape sowings were down 26% on 2019 at 387Kha, and oats saw an estimated 21% decrease to an area of 211Kha.
The spring barley area, by contrast, was up 52% to 1,063Kha. But farmers are concerned that – with lockdown and the subsequent dramatic falls in beer making – their malting barley may well end up in animal feed bins.
Euston’s estate director Andrew Blenkiron said the results from the three fields of winter barley they managed to cut before the rain had been “disappointing but not unexpected”.
Although the crops went in well and in plenty of time last autumn, they ran out of water in April, and as a consequence they died rather than matured, he said.
“They have only yielded about 4.5t/ha. That’s about 40% down on our best barley. Thankfully the rest of the barley has hung on well and is only now reaching maturity, so we will be into that at the start of next week with the hope that we will get a lot more crop.
But winter wheat was “coming on nicely”, he said, helped by 80mm of June rain.
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“I hope that was enough to help fill the grain and I estimate that wheat will, weather-dependent, be ready in about three weeks.” But at best it would be an average crop, he predicted. Meanwhile, 20mm of rain this week had really helped along the sugar beet and maize.
Glenn Buckingham, who farms at Helmingham, near Ipswich, and is chair of Suffolk National Farmers’ Union branch (NFU), said prospects for crops would be mixed.
“The wet autumn was not an ideal start and then the long hot dry spring, where soil moisture deficits were the concern, poor rooting from the autumn and then the need for good rooting systems,” he said.
“But that’s the farmer’s lot and we have to put up with it.”
The effects of the loss of neonicotinoids in seed treatments were beginning to be felt with barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV) returning to the barley crop on the estate, and reports of virus yellows in sugar beet elsewhere. His oilseed rape crop was written off in the autumn due to “significant” cabbage stem flea beetle damage.
His NFU opposite number in Norfolk, Nick Deane, of Bure Farm Services, Hoveton, said there were “good bits and bad bits”, and a “huge legacy” from the “monstrous winter we had”. Establishing crops had been very difficult indeed as a result with some attempts abandoned. “There was a huge cost in terms of there were few chances to establish winter cereals.
The nightmare started in October and carried on until the rains finally ceased on March 20. Some farmers were left with the dilemma of whether to even plant at all, he said, including a few in Norfolk.
But after a very patchy start, crops like sugar beet had staged a recovery. But drilling vining peas for the frozen pea market in such undrillable conditions had been very tough, he said.
“Mother Nature is a wonderful friend and an absolutely wicked enemy,” he said. “You have to be stoic about it.”
He predicted a below average year for crops, but it was still very early to say in terms of crops like his potatoes and sugar beet, due to be harvested in August/September. The potato crop got off to a slow start but had grown well since – although they had been subject to a small aphid bombardment. He was able to irrigate through the dry times, but for some farmers without irrigation it will have been a different story with reduced tuber numbers, he said.
“My feeling is quality will be the issue. I think there’ll be some really varied quality out there,” he said.
A lack of grass was also be a problem, with farmers reporting anything between 20 to 50% down on bales for winter forage – unless they can get in for a second crop. This could leave livestock farmers down for the winter season.
William Hudson, director of agriculture at Hodmedod’s in Beccles, which sells British-grown pulses and grains, said the recent rains had “literally saved the day”. “It’s not going to be a good harvest, but this rain has saved it. I think it will be below average to be honest.”
It was a view echoed by Glenn Buckingham.
“Fortunately these late rains have given all of the spring crops cause for optimism,” he said.
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