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Precision techniques help boost second successive bumper harvest

PUBLISHED: 13:36 26 October 2015 | UPDATED: 13:36 26 October 2015

Wheat being harvested at Great Fransham, near Dereham. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Wheat being harvested at Great Fransham, near Dereham. Picture: Matthew Usher.

© ARCHANT NORFOLK 2015

The East of England was the largest contributor to this year's UK wheat crop - but are there more factors at work than simply good fortune with the weather?

2015 harvest statistics

Defra statistics for the 2015 harvest say UK farmers have grown more than 16m tonnes of wheat for two years running – the first time that has been achieved.

The East of England was the largest contributor to this year’s crop, with 4.17m tonnes.

The amount of wheat grown per hectare rose by 2.8pc since last year to 8.8 tonnes per hectare, which is the highest wheat yield for 25 years.

Meanwhile, the barley harvest reached almost 7.3m tonnes – the largest crop since 1997 – with winter and spring barley up 7.5pc and 3.5pc respectively.

The 2015 harvest has proved to be another bumper barn-filler, with UK farmers growing more than 16m tonnes of wheat two years running for the first time ever.

But while the good fortune of successive near-perfect growing seasons cannot be understated, the region’s farmers can also claim credit for utilising technology to boost their productivity towards these impressive hauls.

Defra says the number of farms employing precision GPS systems to their operations – capable of saving 6-10pc of inputs, fuel and time – has risen from 14pc in 2009 to 22pc in 2012.

Those efficiencies have helped push this year’s overall cereal harvest to a mighty 24.5m tonnes.

South West Norfolk MP and environment secretary Elizabeth Truss said: “We have some of the world’s best farmers – it’s fantastic to see their hard work and expertise rewarded with a bumper harvest of crops that will be heading to our flour mills and distillers to produce some of our favourite foods.

“From using GPS to increase planting precision, to introducing new water-efficient crop varieties, our innovative farmers are embracing technology to unleash their full potential.”

Tom Dye is the managing director of Albanwise Farming, overseeing 20,000 acres of arable land at four sites in Norfolk and Yorkshire. At the company’s Norfolk farms in Barton Bendish near Swaffham, and Saxlingham near Holt, the company has grown 3,700 acres of wheat this year.

Mr Dye, who is also one of the East Anglian representatives on the NFU Combinable Crops Board, said: “I think the vast majority of the reasons for the two wonderful years we have had have been weather-related. But there is also a larger management issue at work here rather than just the uptake of GPS.

“Educational levels within management and good husbandry have improved as well, and I think the use of precision farming is a follow-on from having a better handle on soil and biology.

“It is also about understanding the business side of what we do. Growers are much more aware of the margins in what they are producing, and that does sharpen the focus.

“There has also been an improvement in agronomic ability and the use of research data and external expertise. A lot more growers are getting access to that information, and the business acumen that comes with it.

“We have entered the world of variable rate applications, and detailed soil sampling to understand soil biological interactions beyond the basic macro-nutrition.

“There is a lot of good knowledge, particularly in terms of our fertiliser use and micro-nutrition. It is those second applications of the required micros like magnesium, copper, zinc and boron that we are looking at now, and we are also learning more about the world of amino acid stimulation.

“We have got to look at the complete biology of our land. Within arable farming nitrogen use efficiency is running at about 60pc at the moment, and if we can increase that by 10pc it could be very valuable in terms of yield and/or cost benefit.”

The success of this year’s huge yields will be offset by low prices, an inevitable result of supply and demand in a market now flooded with surplus grain.

Andrew Dewing, of Aylsham-based merchants Dewing Grain, said he believed the wheat price was likely to fall further before it recovered.

“We are having a mini-rally, but I don’t see it holding,” he said. “Last year the market bounced in September and went up almost continuously until Christmas. A lot of farmers are acting like that is going to happen again.

“But the difference this year is the large carry-over. Some of the big businesses carried over a lot of last year’s crop, so there was another 1m tonnes of it this year. The surplus is too big to carry over again and we are not exporting enough, so something has got to give. I think there are a number of people who will come to the market in the next five week, and I think the amount of grain coming forward will be enough to subdue prices, unless something unforseen happens which we don’t know about yet.

“I think the price will drift off between now and the end of November. Now that the farmers have got a crop in the ground in good conditions, and they know they have a job next year, they are starting to think: ‘I have got a shed-full and I need to do something about it.’

“I think they have got to sell something to empty their sheds and to help with their cashflow. But it is a good quality crop, so they are in a good position.”

Has your farm introduced new precision farming techniques? Contact chris.hill@archant.co.uk.

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