September 16, 2008

Harvest Heads for a Sodden Conclusion

Hopes of neatly wrapping up the remainder of this year's wheat harvest in the Westcountry are steadily washing away with the autumn rain.

Dodging the storms has been increasingly challenging, with farmers reluctant to leave crops out any longer than physically possible - especially with days shortening, temperatures falling and soils becoming even wetter.

With contractors struggling to get through their customer schedules, sprouting grains and grain shedding from standing crops has become an issue across parts of the Westcountry.

Sprouting directly affects the yield by reducing the weight of individual grains, and drying grain has been much more expensive than previous years because of steep increases in fuel costs. Almost every grain harvested so far has had to be dried to some extent, where normally more than half the crop would dry naturally.

Anything over 15 per cent moisture needs drying, and most grain in the region has come in at around 19 per cent, which costs more than pounds10 per tonne to dry. Higher moisture loads can cost around pounds20 per tonne.

However, results for Westcountry barley have provided a silver lining to the sodden harvest scenario.

The malting barley harvest was excellent in terms of yield and quality. Whereas usually 55 per cent of the winter barley crop fails to make malting quality, and yields average 2.5 tonnes per acre, grain merchants are reporting that this year 95 per cent passed, at average yields well in excess of 2.8 tonnes per acre.

Spring barley was a similar success, with 90 per cent passing for malting, at yields of 2.8 tonnes per acre, compared with a 65 per cent average pass rate at 2.1 tonnes per acre.

Nationally, Defra's announcement of a temporary suspension of the rules governing the work which farmers can do on waterlogged land has helped growers battling to get crops in from saturated fields.

Pressure was applied from various sources to get a derogation from GAEC3 rules, up to the first week of October, as a matter of urgency.

The National Farmers' Union wrote to Defra Secretary of State Hilary Benn last week seeking a derogation, while shadow Defra Secretary Peter Ainsworth also called for action.

"It's important that the Government does what it can to help farmers get their crops in as soon as possible", said Mrt Ainsworth.

"Among measures that should now be urgently considered is a relaxation of the rules prohibiting harvesting in wet conditions", he went on.

"Valuable crops should not be left to rot in the field for want of sensible and decisive Government action."

Ian Backhouse, chairman of the NFU Combinable Crops Board, said: "We're encouraged that the Secretary of State responded to the appalling conditions faced by many of our members again this harvest. This action removes one barrier to gathering in the remaining crop, and the threat of fines levelled on farmers for bringing home crops while soils are wet.

"Farmers don't want to leave crops out any longer than is absolutely necessary at this time of year."

A good deal of land work has taken place in preparation for wheat crops, following oilseed rape (OSR) and barley. Some farmers have planted a large percentage of their OSR crop for next year's harvest, but with soil still wet, much of the recent cultivation has been limited to ploughing, and even that has not been possible on some clay soils.

The NFU is warning that time is running out to prepare seed beds and establish some varieties of OSR, and farmers have been preparing back-up cropping plans in case it proves too costly to establish as much winter cropping as they had planned - though the rain will go a long way in helping next year's oilseed crops which are already in to establish well.

(c) 2008 Western Morning News, The Plymouth (UK). Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.