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What lessons should farmers learn from harvest 2019?

PUBLISHED: 07:33 22 November 2019 | UPDATED: 07:58 22 November 2019

Norfolk farmers can learn valuable lessons by analysing the 2019 harvest, says Strutt & Parker. Picture: Lesley Buckley / iWitness24

Norfolk farmers can learn valuable lessons by analysing the 2019 harvest, says Strutt & Parker. Picture: Lesley Buckley / iWitness24

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Lessons learned by analysing this year's above-average harvest could influence more profitable crop decisions for future seasons, said rural agents.

Jason Cantrill, associate director at Strutt & Parker in Norwich. Picture: Strutt & ParkerJason Cantrill, associate director at Strutt & Parker in Norwich. Picture: Strutt & Parker

Strutt and Parker's annual Harvest Yields Survey shows figures rising for all the main crops in 2019, with the average winter wheat yield at 9.9t/ha (tonnes per hectare), which is 17pc higher than in 2018 and 7pc higher than the five-year average.

Winter barley also performed better than the previous year with yields up 14pc to 8.8t/ha, while spring barley was up 23pc on 2018 and 9pc above the five-year average.

However, winter oilseed rape figures only grew by 1pc to an average of 3.4t/ha, with cabbage steam flea beetle infestations and a dry spring both taking a toll. The average spring bean yield was up 36pc to 3.8t/ha, with winter beans rising by 32pc.

Jason Cantrill, senior associate director at Strutt and Parker's office in Norwich, said rainfall in June was the crucial difference between the 2018 and 2019 crops, with the drought of 2018 causing a drastic reduction in yield.

"2019 was a year characterised by good establishment of autumn crops, but with low winter rainfall," he said. "This meant that spring crops could be drilled far earlier than in 2018, which undoubtedly helped the uplift in yields.

"The wetter weather from the start of June helped to secure yields of most crops, although frequent rain events and showers during the harvest period did mean harvest was generally slow and many growers saw increased drying costs as a result.

"Looking at the crops in terms of their financial performance, the dry spring allowed many growers to reduce their fungicide spend on wheat crops considerably, relying more on varietal resistance than on chemistry. But despite this fall in variable costs and significantly higher yields, net margins are likely to be lower as a consequence of lower commodity prices than in 2018."

Mr Cantrill said analysis of data on yield and cost of production was invaluable in helping to make informed decisions on crop management.

For example, the survey showed a 2t/ha range in the middle 50pc of yields for most cereal crops - a gap which could greatly affect profitability if crops were not managed accordingly, he said.

"At current prices of £138/t, this yield variability leads to a £276/ha difference in revenue within the middle 50pc of yield," he said. In seasons where yields are so variable, you want to maintain as much margin as you can and that involves being clever about where you can save costs, but equally, being clear in your mind about where a higher spend on inputs like fungicides and fertilisers is going to pay for itself."

"We know that growers who adjust their crop management based on the potential of the crop, are better placed to protect their margins and ensure that different parts of the farm are operating at the optimum level."

Mr Cantrill said he would advise more growers to integrate technology into their business to record yields, crop sales and prices, and variable and fixed costs - all of which could "facilitate new insights into the production of crops, improving decision making and driving profitability."

The autumn of 2019 has proved to be one that growers would want to forget, due to prolonged wet conditions hampering the drilling of autumn cereals - but Mr Cantrill said this also brought lessons to be considered for the future.

"Growers who were able to adapt quickly to changes in conditions, and windows for drilling have managed to get crops in the ground," he said. "This also goes hand-in-hand with having machinery and labour available to act accordingly.

"Having smaller machinery, which is able to travel in more challenging conditions, can pay off in seasons such as this. Hopefully as the trend for automation increases, growers will be able to utilise the full window of opportunity available - resulting in more crops being drilled when conditions allow."

The firm's harvest survey covers 110,600 hectares, spread over 137 farms mainly located in the East of England, Midlands and South East England.

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