The challenge of climate change could post a threat to traditional UK growing patterns, according to an annual harvest yield survey.
The publication of Strutt & Parker’s annual Harvest Yields Survey offers a fresh end-of-year perspective on the 2018 season.
However, at a time when farmers are looking ahead to 2019, the analysis highlights the difficulties many faced this summer.
The survey shows that yields were lower than in 2017 for everything apart from second wheats and winter barley.
The data is based on the performance of combinable crops across nearly 50,000 hectares in the East of England, Midlands and South East England.
According to the results, the overall winter wheat yield for 2018 was 8.5t/ha, which was 7% lower than in 2017 and 9% lower than the five-year average, although higher than the Defra national average of 7.8t/ha.
First wheats averaged 8.7t/ha (down from 9.5t/ha in 2017), while second wheats averaged 8.0t/ha – 3% higher than last year, when second wheats struggled because of a dry start to the spring which limited the uptake of nitrogen.
Tom FitzGerald, farm consultant and agronomist with Strutt & Parker, said the results are a reminder of the difficult growing season many farmers faced because of the extreme weather in 2018.
“While we had good establishment of autumn crops, a prolonged winter and wet spring delayed the drilling of spring crops and this was then followed by drought conditions from the end of May until mid-August, with ear emergence, flowering and grain fill all affected as a result,” he said.
“The weather is always a huge unknown for farmers so, once again in 2019, the priority should be focusing on the areas which growers can influence, such as boosting performance though close attention to detail and finding ways to make cost savings.”
'Resilient to extreme weather'
However, recent analysis from scientists at the Met Office suggests a world climate in which heatwaves will occur much more frequently due to climate change.
This means UK growers will need to start thinking of ways to adapt to less moderate and predictable weather than previously used to, Mr Fitzgerald said.
For example, warmer winters as a result of a changing global climate delayed the start of the UK blackcurrant growing season resulting in lower quality yields, scientists highlighted earlier his week.
Mr Fitzgerald added: “We already know that arable crop production is set to get tougher in the UK, with margins likely to tighten as direct payments are phased out as part of the Agricultural Bill.
“The chemical control of pests, weeds and diseases is also becoming more challenging, due to the reduction in available chemistry and growing resistance problems.
“Growers may want to consider whether there are new crops which could help to make their rotation more resilient to extremes of weather, for example by improving drainage and soil microflora or by reducing soil borne pests and diseases,” he said.
Drought affect on crops
The crop least affected by this summer's drought was winter barley, as the crop had already filled its grains and senesced by the time the drought took hold, the Harvest Yields Survey shows.
Average yields of 7.7t/ha were 5% up on 2017 and 2% up on the five-year average. Spring barley yields averaged 5.6t/ha, 5% lower than in 2017 and 10% below the five-year average.
Winter oilseed rape averaged 3.4t/ha, compared to 3.7t/ha in 2017, with the crops struggling to maintain the number of seeds set per pod which limited yield potential.
Bean yields dropped by around 30% with the drought conditions hindering seed fill and also affecting quality.