With the popularity of spring crops increasing, Abby Kellett asks whether this trend is likely to continue into 2018 and evaluates the benefit of various spring cropping options.
The proportion of spring crops grown in the UK has been increasing year-on-year, driven largely by a need to control weeds, namely black-grass, but also because of their value in boosting the performance of other crops in the rotation.
For many, the shift from winter to spring cropping provides an opportunity to reduce input spend, spread workloads and to tap into premium or niche markets.
As a result, spring crops are proving increasingly attractive to many UK growers, even if the gross margins associated with them tends to be more modest than winter crops.
But given the lacklustre performance of some spring crops this harvest, along with new regulations which prevent growers from applying crop protection products to Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs), will the surge in spring cropping continue next year?
The area of spring barley grown has been on an upward trend for the past seven years, having peaked at about 725,000 hectares in 2017. While this is largely due to its ability to compete against black-grass, Andersons farm consultant Nick Blake, based in the South East, says it is one of the ‘safer’ spring crops to grow.
“Spring crop gross margins are notoriously volatile because of weather and as growers are not always able to get crops in the ground in time, so growers need to think about the likelihood of predicted gross margins actually being achieved.
“On the face of it, spring oilseed rape gross margins look good but how often would you actually achieve those gross margins? Whereas easier to establish crops, such as spring barley, is probably more likely to deliver on yield.”
But Mr Blake insists when growers are considering spring cropping options, the emphasis should not all be on gross margins, but on the wider rotation.
“If you look at key reasons why farmers grow spring crops, it is mainly to control black-grass, so even if growers end up with poor gross margins for those particular crops, you have to ask what the alternative is in the face of continued black-grass pressure.
“It is about looking at the gross margin of the whole rotation, not just of individual crops and trying to make the rotation more sustainable, whether this is through nitrogen fixing crops which reduce reliance on artificial nitrogen, or crops which reduce weed populations,” he adds.
’However there are concerns that the spring barley market could become saturated. Alice Montrose, Strutt and Parker farm consultant based in Oxfordshire says: “Due to the popularity of spring barley because of its ability to compete with black-grass, the price offered on contracts are likely to reduce as a result of the market becoming fulfilled, even with premiums."
She says: “Barley is becoming so popular as a spring break because of its ability to compete with black-grass there is a danger the market could become saturated. Even if growing barley for premium contracts the price may not be attractive.
“Spring wheat is not particularly popular as yields are rarely impressive and because it is late to harvest, so it can be difficult creating multiple stale seedbeds in autumn. Although it is not competitive from a black-grass point of view, there is more spring wheat being sown in places which have such high levels of black-grass they can no longer grow winter wheat.”
In order to provide adequate competition against weeds, she suggests drilling spring wheat between 425-450 seeds per sq.m.
“Spring oats are a good low input option due to limited product approval, vigorous growth and low disease pressure. They are potentially as competitive as spring barley, although their growth habit is more vertical than prostrate. If grown on a contract, they are probably the most profitable option, with gross margins up to £480/ha,” she says.
As with all cereals, the potential margins to be made are likely to vary each year based on the premiums available, so it is important to bear this in mind when budgeting input spend, says Miss Montrose.
Despite new regulations which prevent growers from applying pesticides to EFAs, Roger Vickers, chief executive of the Processors’ and Growers’ Research Organisation (PGRO), insists spring beans still remain a good option for spring sowing.
He says: “We have seen reports suggesting some growers will drop beans in the light of EFA changes. In truth, most growers know the benefits of having pulses in the rotation, and few are producing them purely for the 5% crop area EFA qualification.
“As we look at last season’s harvest, there are lots of growers who have had poor second wheat yields this year, and growers with disappointing spring wheat returns too. They should look at the benefits to wheat yields from a preceding pulse crop. A wide range of research sources give the boost to the following crop of somewhere in the region of 10%, adding up to 700-1000kg/ha to yields on average.”
In terms of agronomy, spring beans have a good yield potential on heavy ground, however the nature of their growth means there can be substantial amounts of bare soil for most of the season, says Miss Montrose. This, along with the limited range of approved herbicides, means they lack competitiveness against weeds.
“Provided the crop is successfully protected from bruchid beetle, good premiums can be achieved when grown for human consumption,” she says.
For those on light land, she suggests spring linseed may be a more suitable option. “Spring linseed has a high margin potential with some attractive contracts out there. It is more suitable than beans on lighter land at higher risk of drought. Yields are largely influenced by weather conditions upon seed set so it is important growers consider this when committing to contracts.”
With growing demand for biogas feedstocks, she says maize production may be a profitable option for planting next spring, provided land is suited to growing the crop.
Spring milling wheat
Spring malting barley
Spring oilseed rape
Source: John Nix Farm Management Pocketbook 2018
“It is not suitable to be grown everywhere. Land needs to be fairly light and free draining to achieve high yields. But if there are nearby opportunities to grow for anaerobic digestion use or cattle, it is a great late-sown option which allows for use of different chemicals and is low maintenance to grow. But growers should bear in mind the contracting charges at harvest if they do not own a forager,” says Miss Montrose.
While it is not without its issues, sugar beet provides another alternative to spring cereals. Mr Blake says: “It is definitely one worth looking at. It can provide problems as lifting is late, which may impact on following crops. But it can be competitive from a gross margin point of view and can help spread workloads.”
Although a new market for the UK, soya crops are offering good gross margins, about £650/ha based on a yield of 2.5t/ha. However Miss Montrose advises waiting another couple of years before investing heavily in the crop. “From a risk management point of view, I think it is wise to see how well the UK market forms before committing large acreages.
“It is not a suitable crop for every land type and it needs light land which warms up quickly in spring to allow rapid spring growth. It also needs to be light to ensure harvest of the crop is not too late. If it is not fit until mid-October, it makes it difficult to establish the next crop.”
While the dry spring had an impact on most crops this harvest, spring crops grown on light soil types were said to have suffered the most.
Spring wheat, barley and oats grown in AHDB Recommended List trials on average yielded 7-11 per cent lower than the national five-year average and there were several quality issues with malting barley across the country.
Miss Montrose, says: “Spring barley was slow to get going after the dry spring. Crops took a long time to germinate and to pick up nitrogen. The subsequent dry June led to a big variation in crop maturity with some crops maturing particularly early and others late.
“There were a few quality issues with spring wheat but the main issue was that crops struggled to tiller because it was so dry, resulting in lower yields.”
Spring beans in the south of England yielded well, particularly on heavy land, but significant problems with bruchid beetle damage saw almost 80% fail to make the grade for human consumption, according to PGRO.
Early indications are spring beans averaged a 1t/ha behind winter beans, which were typically yielding about 5t/ha.
Initial sugar beet yields look relatively high, ranging from 65-80t/ha, but sugar content is somewhat low at about 16.5 per cent.
Growers which opted to grow soya for harvest 2017 have achieved reasonable yields, averaging about 1.8t.ha.
“Considering how much of a dry spring we had, growers were quite pleased,” says Miss Montrose.