As the chimes of Big Ben usher in a New Year, as you savour the glass of fizz in front of a log fire to keep out the winter chill, it is traditional to look back at the months past and forward to the year to come.
2018 was a mixed year for farming with spells of extreme weather affecting productivity. After a relatively mild and sunny winter, the Beast from the East brought snow and ice in March. It was not long enough to cause much damage to arable crops that had come through the winter in fair order, but pastures were wet with little growth just when livestock, especially ewes with their new born lambs, should have been enjoying lush spring grass. In other parts of the country sheep had to dug out of snow drifts.
The cold gave way to heavy rain, useful for recharging reservoirs and aquifers, but a nightmare for those trying to drill spring crops into cold wet seedbeds. There would have been a few crops of ‘cuckoo barley’ but the cuckoos were in short supply. Then it stopped raining and we had a prolonged hot dry summer. Crops had lost tillers in the cold spell but ears were long with lots of grain in the spikelets.
The upshot was a variable harvest across the country. There were some exceptional yields on our local chalk soils but gravels dried out and heavy clays never really recovered from the cold wet spring. The consequence of poor yields in some areas was an increase in price so many local arable farmers had a good year. The weather gave an exceptional vintage for the increasing area of vines in this country, unlike parts of France which were badly hit by severe storms in April.
But, once again, it was the livestock farmers that suffered. After a reasonable first cut or graze, regrowth was very slow in the drought. There was so little grass in August that many farmers had to break into winter fodder, especially for dairy herds. The maize harvest was good but that only offset the relatively poor grass silage and hay harvest and the early feeding. If this winter becomes prolonged there could well be a shortage of fodder, combined with the increased cost of concentrate rations due to higher grain prices.
Looking at prices at the end of this year compared to the start, most arable values are up. Wheat, for example is worth around £170 per tonne now but £135 a year ago, barley £163 and £123, oilseed rape £322 and £300, beans £217 and £141. But livestock vales are little changed despite a difficult year; milk and lamb prices are very similar to last year with beef and pigmeat a little lower.
Of course, the biggest concern looking to the future is the impact of Brexit. If we crash out of the EU without any deal this coming March, thus reverting to WTO tariffs, the result could be catastrophic for British farming, especially the livestock sector. Up to 40% of our sheepmeat is exported, mostly to France and other EU countries, and this will be subject to a tariff of around 50% under WTO rules. There appears to be a majority in the House of Commons against a no-deal Brexit, so we must hope that good sense prevails.
Assuming that we reach some sort of deal with a transition period or that our leaving is postponed to give more time for negotiations, there will be little immediate impact on our farmers. The Single Payment will be paid in full for the next two years and will then face reductions until phased out altogether by 2027. This will result in major restructuring within the industry but at least there is time to plan.
On a more practical level, winter cereals established reasonably well. Oilseed rape is variable, as we have come to expect since the ban on neonicotinoid seed dressings. Some crops have survived flea beetle attack, others have been affected to different extents, from a thin crop with bare patches to almost total loss. It remains to be seen how long many farmers persevere with rape, the area is substantially down this year.
The AHDB published its recommended list of cereal varieties recently and I was struck by the claims of significant gains. The yields of new varieties have shown good increases whilst disease resistance has been greatly improved. This is extremely important as the list of banned or withdrawn pesticides grows ever longer.
The main livestock concern, apart from whether there is enough fodder to last out the winter, is the prospect for lambing this season. I have not heard the result of any scans but I suspect that numbers are low. The critical aspect for prolificacy is that the ewes should be in improving condition when the rams are introduced to flush eggs for fertilisation. There was so little grass in late summer and early autumn that it will probably result in relatively low numbers come lambing.
As the threat of Brexit hangs over us like the sword of Damocles, the message this New Year is to carry on until the political climate becomes more certain but make contingency plans for any eventuality. Diversifying income streams has never been more important. I wish all readers of this column a peaceful and prosperous New Year.