September is a glorious month in the British countryside, especially when we have the weather we have enjoyed for most of the last month. The mornings are cool with heavy dews and diaphanous mists that clothe the valleys and give way to warm sunshine. The light is clear and golden, the air heady with the scent of ripe fruit. Colours change as the autumn advances, the green of leaves turning to yellow orange and reds, the straw coloured stubbles become brown as the soil is tilled.
Michaelmas marks the end of the farming year, a time of reflection of the seasons past. Harvest festivals are held in churches decorated with wheat sheaves, apples, marrows, fruit and vegetables beside the autumn flowers, a celebration of harvest. In the past there have also been agricultural shows such as Alresford and Newbury but not in the pandemic and, for some, probably not in future either.
Results of harvest have been very mixed, with reports of heavy yields in the Cotswolds but, on our chalk soils, they have been no better than average. Much of the winter barley grown is of hybrid varieties, usually reliably yielding but less so this year. There was far less oilseed rape grown and much of it justified that decision although there were a few better crops. The big disappointment was winter wheat which looked promising in early summer but failed to fulfil its potential. Of course, it has been a year of extreme weather, cool and dry in a late spring, but it is not clear what was the limiting factor. Quality suffered too, with relatively low protein levels in milling varieties whilst the cool damp conditions in August reduced Hagberg values. Reports of excellent spring barley yields were not matched in this area as heavy rain earlier in the summer flattened crops.
Nevertheless, there were some excellent crops which tended to be in those fields with good structure and fertility. It is ironic that, at a time when we are urged to eat less red meat and dairy products, mixed farming is one way to improve soil health. Too narrow crop rotations and lack of sound soil management has led to the degradation we see today.
The maize harvest is now underway, to provide winter silage fodder for cattle and feedstock or anaerobic plants. Demand from the one at Apsley Farms near Andover continues to exert its influence locally as it expands further. It is said that 30,000 acres of maize and winter rye are grown on contract to feed the plant each year.
Although Michaelmas marks the end of the farming year, the new one is already at least a month old as they overlap in the modern world. Some drilling of oilseed rape may well have taken place in August, whilst winter barley will be sown by now and a fair proportion of winter wheat. Reports indicate that sales of rape seed have decreased significantly again but there are green shoots emerging in soils around the area. At this stage it is difficult to distinguish between rape and cover crops sown to protect soils over winter.
Where soils as not compacted at depth, minimum or even zero tillage has become much more popular. There is some surface capping from the heavy rains of early summer but seedbeds are fair on light chalk soils. Heavier land is more problematic as ploughing or deeper cultivation is likely to result in slabs of dried out clay. Some farmers are waiting for rain, partly to make the tilth more friable and partly to provide enough moisture for germination.
Reports suggest that the wheat acreage this autumn will be large, especially if farmers keep planting as long as the fine weather holds. In the past, second and subsequent wheats have performed far less well than those sown after a break, but the variety Graham seems able to buck that trend. With prices at around £180 per tonne for feed and over £200 for milling, the continued planting of wheat makes sense. Oilseed rape is worth some £500 per tonne, a huge increase indicative of a much reduced area and poor yields.
Another major factor for future planning that has come to the fore in recent days is the price of gas. That has led to the closure of two fertiliser plants in the UK as gas is needed for the manufacture of ammonium nitrate. Carbon dioxide is a by-product of that process and much of the media coverage has been of the shortage of carbon dioxide used in the slaughter of animals and in food packaging to extend shelf life, amongst many other uses. But, of serious concern to farmers, is the availability and price of fertiliser. It is reported that the Government has agreed to cover the running costs of the plants for three weeks to get them open again but it is not clear what happens after that.
Even if the plants become fully operational again and there is no shortage of fertiliser, the price must reflect the huge jump in the gas cost. Before the closure, the price of ammonium nitrate has reached £360 per tonne, up from £200 a year ago, and is sure to go higher unless the cost of gas collapses again, even £500 has been predicted. In the short term, this big rise in costs will put even more pressure on profitability but there may be a silver lining in the longer term. It will persuade farmers to use less nitrate and look for other ways to increase fertility, such as bringing legumes and pulses into the rotation. Indeed, there may be a large increase in the area of peas and beans in the current growing season. Framers are hoping for grants in ELMS to encourage more restorative crops, the first step towards improving soil health and fertility. That could mean that cash crops of the future are less vulnerable to adverse weather as appears to have been the case this year.