Well, what a turnaround in weather and soil conditions. The last report in early April opened by welcoming the first dry(ish) days for several months and the ground just about drying enough to travel on with fertiliser spreaders and the occasional grain drill. Quite unbelievably we have just experienced the sunniest and driest April on record which has swung the soil moisture pendulum completely the other way.
As an indication of the level of drought, the area around Kelso registered 0mm of rainfall for the whole month. Other local recordings have shown measurements in the low single figure readings as well. Given the poor establishment of many of the winter crops rooting system means that many have been under significant stress and struggling to pick up nutrients from the soil at a critical time of their development and shedding tillers.
Spring barley showing the effects of draught
The acreage of winter cropping was already reduced due to the previously intimated wet autumn limiting suitable sowing conditions. The recent extreme dry weather has just exacerbated the issue of lower potential output from the crops that did get sown.
The drier start to April was welcomed by farmers looking to sow spring crops, which is a much larger area than normal due to the lower winter acreage. Many fields of barley, oats and spring wheat were sown into very good seedbeds. However, once again the lack of April rainfall subsequently has led to many of these crops struggling to get established properly with patchy emergence even in some better soils.
Winter barley - Most crops are beginning to show flag leaf to ear emergence. The standards of crops around the country are mixed, with some very promising fields. However, the majority are looking short of reaching full potential.
Winter wheat – Whilst crops are progressing through growth stages at a near normal rate for the time of year, the dry conditions have prompted many crops to shed tillers. This has means that they are thinner than ideal. This is especially evident in fields which have experienced high water levels through the winter as the crops have been under stress.
Most crops are still due their final top dressings of fertiliser, with some famers querying whether to apply normal levels as yields will be reduced.
Spring barley - As mentioned, crop emergence has been stilted and even the recent rainfall in past couple of days may be too little too late. The situation will be clearer in a few weeks’ time.
Markets - Volatility has been the nature of the market recently due to the ongoing uncertainty caused by both Covid 19 virus and the extreme dry weather.
The drought conditions didn't only affect our area in Scotland but also England and wide areas of France. This has brought reactions into the wheat futures giving quite large movements in prices over the month of April although the highest and lowest trades in Nov 20 futures remained within a £11 range between £160 and £171. Wet weather experienced in both England and France over the past few days has seen a bearish reaction to the market and Nov 20 futures are currently trading in the lower regions of that range. This has been compounded by large tonnages of extra corn/maize in the US due to the falling demand for bioethanol and the one area holding the market a bit steadier is that Sterling is still slightly on the weaker side. The UK will still require to import a sizeable tonnage of wheat although this quantity is bound to be less due to the reduced demand from distillers and bioethanol production here as well.
Feed barley in the current market is still quite finely balanced between supply and demand. Some farmers are turning livestock out now but many others are holding their animals indoors, due to lack of growth in grass and plenty fodder from last year's harvest, which is having the effect of keeping barley demand steady. Prices remain at ex farm around £130 for May movement.
New crop prices are still hard to pin down exactly and, since many winter and spring barley crops aren't looking very productive, there might not be quite as much barley in the market come harvest as could have been the case with a better spring. However, the sheer acreage of spring barley being sown does mean that we will be needing to export a fair proportion of the grain which will keep values much lower than wheat and possibly sub-£120 ex farm at harvest.
I fully expect the current volatile market to continue since there is still great uncertainty over many issues such as ongoing demand through distillers, weather effects here and abroad, currency fluctuations and global political unrest.