In May, we commented on the effect the driest April on record was having on cereal crops across eastern Scotland. Little did we realise that this situation was going to be developed to an even greater degree due to one of the driest Mays on record too.
Early May offered some brief respite, with some showers across parts of the UK and western Europe. This has been significantly counter-balanced by a lack of any meaningful rainfall over the same area, along with drying winds and, more recently, strong sunshine and high temperatures.
The relatively small amounts of rain did give crops a welcome boost at the time. Most notably, spring sown cereals will have benefitted. At the time, most farmers would have been hoping that these showers, albeit lighter ones, would continue to appear reasonably regularly to help alleviate much of the stress and start allowing crops to pick up better nutrition. Unfortunately, this has not been the case and these has been a notable deterioration in the condition of many crops.
As previously mentioned, there are significant variations in all crops and some of the starkest differentials are in winter barley.
Due to the conditions, all winter barley but particularly the crops under greatest stress have arrived at ear emergence earlier than seen for years. This indicates a potential negative effect on the crops' yield performance and there is a possibility of the quality of grain-fill could be compromised too.
It is practically unheard of for wheat crops in Scotland to have fully emerged ears before the end of May. But this has been the case this season in several parts of the south and east of the country. Again, it is crops under the most stress which have generally headed earliest and this, once again, is bound to put doubts on the yield and quality performance of the crops.
Winter barley showing the effects of draught
Having said that, there are quite a reasonable proportion of wheat which is looking promising. With very low disease pressure, some crops are showing good health signs with clean flag leaves and ears which will take full advantage of the recent strong sunshine bringing the possibility of sounder, heavier grain from these fields at harvest.
In the case of both winter barley and wheat, there is still hope that some respectable amounts of rain in the ensuing couple of weeks would provide major help toward improving the crops' potential yield and quality performances. However, if we continue to experience a continuation of the current conditions there must be serious questions over the ability of many crops to provide a worthwhile tonnage of marketable grain.
Due to the lack of winter sown crops, particularly wheat, there are much greater areas of spring barley across the country. Within these areas, there is a 'mixed bag' of crop conditions due to the dry weather in April and May.
Crops entered into the ground early in March when the ground was still very wet after so many months of near constant rain initially looked as if they would suffer due to the sodden seedbeds. However, these have since proved the best crops to be found all over the country. Any field sown in late March or in April have really found it a challenge to establish and flourish. Although many crops look ok from a distance, quite a number of them are rather thin due to lack of tillering and there is unlikely to be a large crop of straw off any spring crops anywhere.
Quite a large proportion of spring barley is just on ear emergence already - very early for just the same reasons as the winter crops. One worry is that if there is some quantity of rainfall in the near future, the spring barleys are still capable of throwing up some very late tillers which won't ever mature in time and could spoil a sample with green grains.
It should come as no surprise that there has been a much firmer feel to the wheat futures over the recent weeks following such stress building weather conditions throughout the UK and much of western Europe.
Along with sterling continuing to show a weaker side, we have seen wheat recently break out of the previously tight trading range it had been stuck in for quite a while with trades reaching over £174 toward £175 on the November 2020 futures.
This, with some stronger premiums developing, has seen the ex-farm prices reaching £175-£176 for November in Lothians/Borders. Unless there is a significant turnaround in the weather soon, it is likely that this firm base will support prices through to harvest since the rain may arrive too late to be of any good.
Despite the comments on the state of the barley crops, the sheer scale of acreage sown down to spring barley, along with the reduced demand form maltsters this harvest, should ensure that the price for barley doesn't climb much beyond its current anticipated value of £115-£120 ex farm at harvest. However, as ever, much can happen between now and then so it’s difficult to be too certain.