Oilseed rape area is set for further decline after catastrophic yields have left many growers pulling the plug on the crop.
This season (2019/20), England’s oilseed rape area fell by 28 per cent on 2018/19 figures, making it the lowest since 2002, according to AHDB estimates.
A Farmers Guardian survey asking how those who grew OSR this year planned to move forward found 40 per cent of respondents would not be growing it next year and 22 per cent were growing less.
In Buckinghamshire, mixed farmer, Richard Heady, said he tried ‘everything to make it work,’ including companion cropping and air seeding into standing wheat, but he will be replacing it with spring oats and beans moving forward.
“Cabbage stem flea beetle has just annihilated it – the population is too high now whatever we do. It used to be a reliable profitable crop year on year that you did not even have to worry about until the neonicotinoid ban. Round here, area will be down by about 80 per cent. Not many people are trying it again.”
Beekeepers are already feeling the impact of the decline in flowering crops with honey yields down this year. This will also be affecting wild pollinators said David McDowell, a bee farmer from Leicestershire.
“From a commercial bee farming point of view, it is a crop we rely on as an early spring crop. Not only do we get a crop of honey, but it is a real benefit to the bees because it builds them up early. If that stimulus is not going to be there, they will be weaker.
“The threat is the same for wild bees, but because no one is managing them there is no way to quantify it. Bumblebees are out very early and will forage at a lower temperature than honeybees, so it is really important for them to get out early and fed.
“In early spring when food is sparse OSR creates an abundance of food for all the pollinators that are out then. People focus on honeybees, but it is the wider insect population as well – a lot of things benefit from OSR.
“We are buying in OSR grown with neonics from other parts of the world and being penalised for it. We are exporting the problem somewhere else and it is not a level playing field.”
AHDB’s Planting and Varieties survey estimated the biggest fall in OSR area for 2019/20 was in the East Midlands and the East, but the scale of the problem is expected to start migrating further north and west.
Charlie Ireland, senior director of farming at Strutt and Parker who is based near Oxford, said around half of his growers have removed OSR from the rotation for 2020/21.
“Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, and Worcestershire are probably further west than most people anticipate the scale of the problem. Some of these growers were pushing 3.6-4 tonnes per hectare but this year’s harvest was disastrous, and they are opting for something lower risk.”
In Wiltshire, Roger Wilson, said until two years ago he had never lost a crop of OSR.
“Two years ago, we had a slight issue with flea beetle but last autumn it was a nightmare. One 8ha field, as soon as it emerged the beetle stripped it off.
“Economically, unless you are guaranteed 4t/ha, it costs so much to grow and the risks are too high. It is not that we will never grow it again, but it is a matter of waiting until we are confident there is no risk attached to it.”
Kent farmer, Tom Sewell who grew between 80-120ha of oilseed rape a year has also dropped the crop from the rotation after yields ‘fell off a cliff.’
“Two years ago we averaged 5t/ha, a year ago we averaged 3.7t/ha and this year we averaged less than 1t/ha.
“We may try oilseed rape again in the future, but we have done what we can. We always leave stubbles tall and we are all direct drilled with chopped straw.”
Andrew Gilchrist, MD at Scottish Agronomy says Scotland could also be set for a small decline in OSR area with early yields looking 10-20 per cent down on last year in southern and central Scotland although holding up well in the north east.
“It is hard to say because we have quite a lot to cut still so it will depend a bit on how that fairs. We do not have quite the same flea beetle issues here that they do in the south, so it is not as big a struggle. It is worsening but we are not on the same trajectory as England.”
Production-wise, Owen Cligg, trading manager at United Oilseeds said although planted area is likely to be down on last year, production figures could be up if more crop survives for 2021 harvest.
“We have seen quite good seed sales and people have been able to plant early into good seedbeds because there is a bit of moisture around.
“We are still confident that rapeseed, when it survives provides a good gross margin and it is a certainly a break crop worthwhile considering.”