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Autumn 2021 should be a fresh start for UK farmers. Better UK growing conditions for current autumn and spring drilled crops, fresh seed stocks across the board as overyeared farm stocks cleared, and grain value rising driven by high demand and uncertainty around declining global stock-to-use ratios.
Wheat and barley remain consistent as the top performing and most important crops on farm. Common crops, wheat, and barley benefit from their versatility but do rely on continuous breeding improvements to their traits, disease resistances and yield. Milling wheat ground down for flour is the most popular form, used in foodstuffs from bread to biscuits. It’s especially popular in the UK where we produce high quality milling wheat. Just shy of 2m tonnes of barley for malt is bought by UK maltsters each year and diversification of malt uses see this increasing. We’re seeing more uses for cereals in animal feed, wheat has also diversified further with food and drinks manufacturers using it to create starch and glucose, and the Bioethanol market continues to adapt, with plantbased ethanol being used as a petrol alternative.
Last year was challenging for many oilseed rape growers; the dry period during establishment in 2019 combined with relentless Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle (CSFB) pressure led to some very poor results at harvest. As a result, suggestions are that crop areas for 2021 harvest could be below 325,000 hectares, albeit the amount written off could be less than the last couple of seasons due to better establishment in autumn. Despite its inherent high-cost base and other challenges however, oilseed rape has been the most profitable break crop on many farms, as well as helping to spread harvest workload with an early start. There will then, this year, be many farmers looking over the hedge at fields that established
well and developed quickly through autumn/spring and sensing an opportunity with new varieties to get the crop in this year. Pulses have well known benefits to following cereals and many have achieved good results with peas and beans in 2020, and with consumers pressuring supply chains to find local alternatives to imported commodities, beans are viable options with their end uses growing and environmental benefits. Oats have a growing market on their side but only spring crops fit grass-weed situations and spring varieties are less favoured by the end user, so a judgement call on the miller contract vs agronomic pressure must be taken farm by farm. Linseed will inevitably spark interest again, with some trying winter crops as a direct replacement for oilseed rape with early sowing and harvesting.
Other options might exist in mixed farming areas with forage crops and/or re-introducing livestock when working with others with the specialist skills and knowledge. With alternative break crop gross margins somewhat unknow compared to OSR, the obvious choice for many is to extend the rotation to include a greater proportion of cereals. This effectively reduces the break crop area to minimise the effect of simply replacing OSR with a less profitable alternative. On heavy soils, the most profitable (and sustainable) rotation will be two wheats after a break crop, followed by spring barley. Others may even return to continuous wheat / cereals but caution must be taken to avoid the Take-All effects on rooting and yield.
It is perhaps more challenging on lighter soils where second cereals tend not to perform so well. The key to minimising the financial impact is to look at the gross margin across the whole rotation rather than direct crop replacements. Farm businesses may be considering whole-field stewardship options as one of their replacement break crop alternatives. A two year legume fallow is an example of an option under the current English Countryside Stewardship which may, in some situations, act as the break crop. As a general rule, this will only work for average performers, or poorer land, where the risk vs reward ratio remains higher.
For top performers, and good soils, continuing with ‘full’ cropping is likely to be the best way forward. Productivity remains one of the key differences between business performance, certainly not scale. It is simply understanding land capability and having excellent attention to detail. These are often the result of multiple small improvements which when combined deliver large changes to the bottom line. Productivity remains the basic principle if businesses are to thrive. To that point Wynnstay has designed a portfolio of autumn crops to help our farm customers meet the needs of end users and overcome any rotational, environmental, and agronomic challenges they face on farm.