Autumn is the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness according to John Keats while Michaelmas is the turn of the farming year. All is safely gathered in or, at least, should be, a time for reflection on the seasons past. It is also the time for agricultural shows in this part of the country, culminating in the Royal County of Berkshire this coming weekend. So when farmers meet up after the purdah of harvest, they share a few drinks and tell a few tall tales.
Alresford Show is held on the first Saturday in September, so this year was as late as it can be. It has grown rapidly over recent years but has lost some of its charm. It used to be in a time warp, how agricultural shows were fifty years ago but, following the disaster of 2012 when it had to be cancelled on the morning of the show, it has caught up with others. The result is that is more popular with the public than ever with more trade stands but has lost some main players such as Savills and Strutt and Parker.
Not surprisingly, given the time of year, the conversation amongst the farmers was about harvest. Reports of winter barley were generally good but of oilseed rape were mixed. Some said that yields were not as bad as they feared but there is a consensus that, with no reliable way to control flea beetle, it is a marginal crop to grow. Most were cutting down on the area for the coming year whilst several said they would not grow it at all. This, of course, leads to the question of which other break crop can give a better return.
Yields of winter wheat were excellent in most cases. One farmer told me that his crops were the best he has ever grown with the yield monitor on the combine nudging fifteen tonnes per hectare in the best parts of fields. Another said that yields were no more than average, but he was an exception. Quality was good at the start of harvest but deteriorated with the wet weather in the middle of August.
One told me that his combine had broken down for a couple of days whilst his neighbours were flat out cutting wheat at over 20% moisture. By the time he got going again, the moisture was down to 14%, saving him a great deal of time and money in the drier! Spring barley was variable. Crops planted early yielded well but those sown later were disappointing. I heard nothing of other crops such as oats, peas or beans.
Maize in the fields near my house was cut in the first week in September, at least ten days earlier than usual. As the driver of the forage harvester waited for a trailer, I had a brief chat with him. The machine itself was enormous, cutting twelve rows at a time with an engine of over 700 horse power. It had been bought second-hand this year for over £200,000 but the header was from the previous machine. It was an excellent crop, the driver told me he thought around 18 tonnes of dry matter per hectare compared to an average of 12 to 14.
Other maize crops, especially those grown as feedstock for anaerobic digestion plants, have been less successful this year. But with abundant grass growth this summer giving good yields of grass silage, most dairy farmers are well set up with winter forage. I remember when maize first started to be widely grown in the 1970s. ADAS, the Government’s Agricultural Development Advisory Service, was encouraging cattle farmers to try the crop as an alternative to grass silage or hay. In my farming days, I grew it for my beef cattle but it seems that few beef farmers grow it today.
But, just because the harvest has finished, this is no time to rest. Any oilseed rape for next year is probably in the ground by now with winter barley also sown in the middle of September. The planting of winter wheat takes place anytime from mid-September to the end of October, even into November, depending on the previous crop and the state of the seedbed. Some farmers sow late in the hope of controlling blackgrass by cultivation in a false seedbed, but this is still a very busy time on arable farms.
So harvest may have been satisfactory, even excellent in some cases, but the downside is the price of the grain. Feed wheat is fairly static at around £120 per tonne with feed barley at £110. This is way below last year’s prices and may well be below the cost of production for many, depending upon the yield. With the loss of neonicotinoid insecticides to control flea beetle on rape and the building of resistance to blackgrass herbicides, it is not clear what is the best cropping plan for the coming year. Add in the uncertainty of Brexit and I do not envy farmers trying to plan for the future.