MANY farming hopes are pinned on September being a wonderful early-autumn month. That’s the only chance most grain growers have of rescuing what has so far been a dire harvest.
Most winter barley has been harvested in one way or another, often from muddy fields with ruts a foot deep with water lying in them. Combines with tracks or four-wheel drive are no longer a novelty.
Most oilseed has also been cleared. Yields and quality for it and winter barley have been much lower than average for recent years, in some cases pitiful.
No one believes spring barley will be much better and there is a resigned acceptance that wheat yields and quality will be way below average. The best that can be hoped for – apart from the fervent hope that prices remain high – is good weather in which to cut it, so come on September.
The reasons for this disastrous harvest are clear enough and began a year ago when many autumn-sown crops were drilled in wet conditions and got off to a poor start.
We had one good month in spring, March. Much spring barley sown later than that suffered from excessively dry conditions, restricting root establishment and growth, especially on heavier land. And much spring barley wouldn’t have been sown at all if it had been possible to sow wheat in autumn.
At the same time, crops that were sown in autumn have been about a fortnight to three weeks behind their usual growth stages.
Then the government appointed a minister for drought, or something similar, and the wet weather started. Rain has persisted ever since. Silage and such hay-making as there is these days was, and still is in some fields, difficult to impossible.
Combining grain and oilseed crops has been much the same, with the proviso that big, modern, combines can clear crops at up to 10 acres an hour when they get the chance.
Farmers facing adversity always remind me of the British-at-war spirit of we’ve been here before and got through it, it’s only pain.
That is still evident, but there is also a feeling that, all things considered, perhaps we haven’t been here before – even in the legendarily bad year of 1985 – and that this is the worst harvest, certainly the worst harvesting conditions, any of us have seen.
From that cheery thought, we move to the knock-on effects. Most immediate is that, farming being what it is, a long-term business, next harvest has to be planned while cursing this one. So every effort has to be made to drill oilseed rape and winter barley, either after ploughing or using one of the increasingly popular minimum-tillage methods.
Emerging oilseed rape then has to be protected from slugs, rampant in a wet year like this. The tonnage of slug pellets spread in the past two or three weeks on newly sown oilseed is frightening, no doubt with more to come.
Seed quality for all crops now being sown has been a problem. If the quality of harvested crops is poor, then getting top quality seed is much more difficult.
Forward contracts made months ago for delivery of grain or oilseed of defined quality at such and such a price, with adjustments to be made depending on final quality and quantity, cause problems in a bad harvest.
Quality is the main problem. Loads or whole crops can be rejected and the seller can still be responsible for trying to find replacement crops of the right quality to meet the contract. The main advice for growers is to accept there is a quality/quantity problem when advised of one.
Cash flow is another problem. It was recently reported that Scottish farming’s collective overdraft, owed to banks and mortgage companies, was £1.7billion at the end of May. That was £56million more than the same time last year, and the highest on record.
A late, poor, harvest won’t help that position. As the weeks slip by and the number of loads of grain rejected for poor quality and low specific weights increases, the payments growers expected to receive drop and the time they were expected to arrive slip back.
The sympathy with which bankers looking at rising overdrafts deal with this slippage is questionable, according to the NFU as well as individual farmers. The old joke about the banker’s glass eye being the one to show a gleam of compassion is alive and well.