A Harvest to Forget? Reports from the Farming Frontline

Given such a tumultuous year, will this autumn’s harvest be one to blot from memory as farmers look ahead to the new season?

From an arable farmer’s perspective, the 2020 harvest is probably one to forget. With the wettest autumn in many years inhibiting ground conditions for planting, and then spring only offering a brief window for spring sowing to make up the deficit – it was never going to be a particularly memorable harvest. Farmers are now turning towards the new cycle with the hope that this first year of the new decade will finally be behind them. Displaying typical resilience and determination to get on with the job in hand, crops are now largely harvested and farmers are now looking forward to a new cropping year. The Clydesdale and Yorkshire Bank agricultural team has been reviewing how their area has performed.

Brian Richardson

Brian Richardson, UK Head of Agriculture for Clydesdale and Yorkshire Bank

With variable weather affecting the whole nation, and lockdown hitting the sector’s usual demand, it is unsurprising that farming in 2020 has been a bit of a roller-coaster. Oliver MaxeyRegional Head of Agriculture, offers insights from working with those out in the fields in the South of England:

“As this year’s farm harvest draws to a close, the large amount of spring cropping, coupled with the exceptionally dry spring, has resulted in grain stores being not quite as full as hoped. Of course there is significant variation from one farm to another depending on the crops grown, soil type and rainfall for the area, however the harvest in the South of England is probably down about 30% on what would normally be expected.

“Alongside this, straw yields are also lower than normal, which will further reduce income streams for farms. On the bright side, grain prices have been steadily rising over the past 12 months and are currently at approximately £175/ton, which is 25% up on the last five-year average. This brings some opportunity to make up lost income despite lower yields.

“Another positive is savings that have been made through reduced fertiliser and spray costs, which are due to growing larger than normal areas of spring crops this year, compared to more expensive winter cereals. So, fortunately it may be that cashflows on arable farms find some relief.”

Livestock farms have also not escaped the chain of COVID-19 and climate consequences, as rising grain prices, inevitably lead to higher bought-in feed prices.

Oliver continued: “Beef, sheep and pig prices are running quite firm at the moment, which is good news. So, while it will be disappointing for those farmers to incur higher feed prices, they are perhaps in a stronger position to deal with rising feed costs compared to much of the dairy industry, where the current average milk price is only on a par with the average cost of production.”

Along with the entire economy, the agricultural sector will be waiting for news on a trade deal with the EU. Oliver considers the implications: “We all saw how quickly supermarket shelves emptied when COVID-19, took hold in the spring. Given the quantity of food imported from and exported to Europe, this is a big issue and one to watch closely.

“While any Brexit deal is not solely focussed on food, hopefully it is deemed an important aspect of the negotiation and will safeguard the future of farming in Britain.”

Darren Owers Regional Head of Agriculture for the North of England & Yorkshire, reports that on his patch, some in the agricultural sector cannot remember a year with so many challenging weather conditions. Yet, with weather cycles a feature of cultivating, farmers are relieved to see that soils seem to be in excellent condition to establish and enable an early start for next year’s crops.

“Although it has been a year to forget, there has been some good news. Where the winter drilled crops were established and not flooded, yields are average, and because the early conditions were good, many of the winter crops were harvested at low moisture with minimal requirement for drying.

“Despite the tough drought conditions that we experienced in the early part of the season, the spring drilled crops actually yielded better than expected, and it was the deterioration in weather during harvest that impacted grain quality. This harvest has also brought clarity for many farmers, who have concluded that that oilseed rape is no longer a viable crop.”

In Southern Scotland, the Scottish Borders and Cumbria, Regional Head of Agriculture for these regions,Stephen Buchan commented on the diverging experiences of this year’s harvest.

“It’s fair to say that 2020 has been a mixed bag, and it is definitely not all doom and gloom. Out in the fields, it’s clear that some crops are bringing in an inconsistent harvest, while others are meeting average yields or exceeding expectations, which is better than predicted, given the volatile climate conditions.

“There have been some acute differences across the region, for example, Oil Seed Rape is holding up well with yields touching 2t/acre, but due to geography in some cases it is falling to 1.2t/acre. Early drilled winter wheat has done very well, even delivering up to 5t/acre, whereas late drilled wheat, along with winter barley fared less well.

“Beyond the cereals, farmers are reporting that potato yields and quality have held up, and those with contracts are bringing in good returns. However, as a result of COVID-19, those farming enterprises without contracts are facing a service sector slowdown and lack of demand, which is putting pressure on prices. The most positive news is that grass has held up incredibly well, and most are managing three cuts of silage, with the quality looking good across all cuts.”

In the North and North East of Scotland (Highland, Moray, Aberdeenshire and Angus) spring malting barley is the main crop grown. George MoodieRegional Head of Agriculture for Clydesdale and Yorkshire Bank working around Inverness, highlights the dual-nature of the harvest for Scottish farmers.

“While a lot of the headlines across the country have reported the worst harvest in years, farmers in the North of Scotland are not experiencing this, which makes us realise how lucky we have been with the weather this year. Despite some initial concerns just before the combines started rolling, farmers are now reporting a good harvest, with many yields exceeding expectations, some even bringing in some record yields. With the weather holding well throughout, moisture levels have been low, resulting in less fuel and wear and tear on machinery.

“The impact of increased yields is the abundance of grain in the area, which has created some concerns regarding quality, primarily due to higher levels of skinning’s than would be expected in a normal year. This means that most farmers are having some barley rejected by maltsters. There have also been rumours that some farmers have been advised that maltsters may only intend to take 80% of the contracted (Malting Barley) tonnage. 

With market concerns and less optimism in the whisky sector due to COVID-19, there appears to be a carry-over of barley from last year, so maltsters are being stricter on quality. As a result, farmers are now having to try to find a home for this grain on the feed markets.

“The dry weather has allowed the potato harvest to progress well, and already more than half of the crop has been lifted in the area. Similar to the potato harvest in South Scotland, no quality issues have been reported and yields appear to be good. Another upside is that there is plenty of straw and silage for the livestock farmers, and in general prices don’t seem to have been impacted adversely by COVID-19 at this stage.”

Brian Richardson, UK Head of Agriculture for Clydesdale and Yorkshire Bank, concludes with final insights from his work across the UK’s agricultural heartlands: 
“Farmers are now busy planting for next year and hopefully the autumn will allow for a more ‘business as usual’ approach. Now is a good time for farming enterprises to update financial projections and establish working capital requirements for the year ahead. There are certainly plenty of potential challenges with COVID-19, and wondering what any Brexit trade deal might look like or changes to farming support payments. Yet, as usual, farmers will keep working to produce high quality produce at incredible value for money – it’s what they do!”

Yorkshire & Clydesdale Bank

Related Links
link How Gene Edited Crops Can Avoid Making the Same Mistakes as GMOs
link New Barn-Busting Wheat Responding to Topical Threats
link Research into Grey Field Slug Aims to Reduce Quantity of Pesticides
link Rhubarb Farming Grows for Britain