The last decade has seen a significant decline in the area of biscuit wheats grown in the UK. But new varieties claiming to offer both yield and marketability are vying to put them back on the map. Marianne Curtis reports.
Nabim Group 4 wheat varieties, destined for animal feed or biofuels, have been on an upward trajectory in the UK for more than a decade, mainly at the expense of Group 3 biscuit wheats.
Against a backdrop of low commodity prices and with low premiums on offer, the lower yields and higher growing costs often associated with Group 3 soft milling wheats act to persuade growers that growing Group 4 varieties is a more profitable option.
While UK-grown biscuit wheats, branded uks by AHDB, have proved popular with European biscuit makers in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Morocco, consistency of supply has often been a limiting factor. The poor harvest of 2012 in terms of quantity and quality hit buyer confidence and some argue these markets have never fully recovered.
Demand is also there from domestic biscuit manufacturers. Richard Plant, category manager – agriculture, group procurement at United Biscuits, which counts McVitie’s, Carr’s and Jacob’s among its brands, says Group 3 wheats are critical to his business. “The national decline in Group 3 varieties is a risk to me doing business.”
The firm accounts for nearly one-quarter of the UK biscuit sector and is valued at £580 million. Each household buys an average of 94 packets of biscuits/annum spending £94.25 each, says Mr Plant.
KWS has recently launched two Group 3 additions to the 2016/17 AHDB Recommended List to the market
The company is working with UK growers in a bid to encourage them to grow more Group 3 wheat varieties and says with respect to United Biscuits wheat suppliers in the North East, last year saw a 57% increase on 2011.
“The main issue in this area is consistent quality which is influenced by weather, planting and harvest conditions, hence there is a difference between Group 3 grown and Group 3 in spec.”
In eastern England he says the main pressure comes from Group 1 varieties, particularly Skyfall, which with its high yields is making it difficult to persuade growers to grow Group 3 varieties. “But the UB contract has ensured growers have maintained production levels of Group 3 varieties at 16% – twice the national percentage level.”
Insufficient premium for Group 3 wheats acts as a disincentive to growing them but with varieties now available which offer yields on a par with Group 4 feed wheats and marketability to boot, growers should reconsider, according to Jack Watts, lead analyst at AHDB.
“Growers need to let go of the emotiveness of the premium. It used to be about premium and hindsight; now it’s about potential and flexibility. High yield and good marketability is a huge strength developing for UK wheat.”
But while some Group 1s, 2s, and 3s may now be offering yields on a par with Group 4 feed varieties, Mr Watts does not see the latter disappearing any time soon. “Farmers have become good at growing them, particularly in the North, where they may be disconnected from mill demand or export markets or the weather risk is too great to contemplate.”
But while some Group 1s, 2s, and 3s may now be offering yields on a par with Group 4 feed varieties, Mr Watts does not see the latter disappearing any time soon.
“Farmers have become good at growing them, particularly in the North, where they may be disconnected from mill demand or export markets or the weather risk is too great to contemplate.”
Seed grower, Phil Gorringe farms 440 hectares, 360ha of which is arable and the rest supporting a beef enterprise at Blakemere near Hereford. Soil type is heavy Hereford clay with some light, gravelly loam.
He says: “Everything is seed – winter wheat, winter barley, herbage seed, vining pea seed, cut flowers and red wheat bird seed.”
Currently feed wheats are flying high but because prices have dipped in the last year, growers may be looking at premiums to go with yields, he says. “Some feed wheats performed exceptionally well last year but you can’t expect the same yields. This year more normal yields are probable and with no prospect of feed wheats going up much the only way to boost margins is to grow wheat with premium potential.”
Last year Mr Gorringe grew Group 3 biscuit wheat KWS Basset. “It is funny looking, a bit straggly and wild but does seem to have the ability to yield. It had a good slot after vining peas and we use a good fungicide regime for obvious reasons but we were very pleased with it and the bushel weight was good.
“If you get a good bushel weight you get a good yield with it. It yielded between five to six tonnes/acre. There was no sign of it going down and we don’t use growth regulators.”
This year Mr Gorringe is growing KWS Basset as a second wheat. “It had a more robust seed dressing against take-all but there is no evidence of problems [take-all] and establishment has been better than last year. Last year was exceptional but I’m confident it will perform well.”
Graph from PDF DW launch master (slide 37): Caption: Estimated proportion of UK wheat area by nabim group
If space: Jack Watts: Caption: High yield and marketability is a huge strength developing for UK wheat, says AHDB’s Jack Watts
Pic with picture desk of combining wheat: Caption: New higher yielding biscuit wheat varieties may stem feed wheat variety dominance years.
Farming 280 hectares near Hull, East Yorkshire, on medium to heavy clay soils, Jonathan Hodgson grows 136ha of wheat as well as spring barley for malting in his own brewery, vining peas and oilseed rape.
Most of his wheats are Group 3 soft wheats including Britannia and Zulu. He also grows Group 2 variety, KWS Lili and Evolution from Group 4.
He says: “This land suits biscuit varieties. We can get biscuit level protein and a reasonable hagberg. We try to grow a product with added value giving more options. We can get a premium from a local mill, although this year it isn’t as good as other years.”
Yields are on a par with feed wheat varieties, he says. “For example we averaged 11.6 tonnes/ha across the board last year. It was a good year.”
The business also benefits from its close proximity to the Vivergo bioethanol plant in Hull which processes more than one million tonnes of wheat/annum. “It gives us a few pounds’ premium being on the doorstep and is a big factor against Group 3s, particularly if you are only getting a £3/t premium and a slight discount for moisture, for example.
“This year, when the premiums are tight, you do ask yourself is it worth the hassle?”
However, disease resistance is also a factor influencing Mr Hodgson’s decision and Britannia has proved strong in this regard, he says. “Commodity prices are tough and we need to be careful what we spend. I look for a very good disease package; septoria is one of our biggest headaches.”
In a little aside which flies in the face of conventional variety categorisation, Mr Hodgson said he also had a local mill offering him a £3/t premium for Evolution for biscuit flour. “Where does this leave the RL? Mills looking for a potentially non-biscuit wheat is a rarity. The only problem was the hagberg was a bit too high.”