The growing threat of black grass to UK farms was laid bare
in sowings data showing one of the lowest wheat areas in recent history, but a
surge in sowings of spring barley.
British farmers – that is, excluding Northern Irish growers –
sowed 1.761m hectares of wheat, a drop of 55,000 hectares year on year, and the
third lowest figure on data going back to the 1990s, according to the AHDB
The two years with lower acreage, 2001 and 2013, both
followed periods of unusually persistent rains which prohibited seedings of
winter crops, which include the vast majority of UK wheat.
The AHDB noted that the largest drops in wheat plantings for
this year's harvest "were reported in the eastern regions of England, where black
grass remains a key challenge".
The weed has become an increasing problem for farmers, bringing
hefty yield penalties and, because black grass seed is shed before the wheat
harvest, and resistant to many agrichemicals, proving difficult to eradicate.
Spring barley up,
One common strategy among farmers for controlling black
grass has been to leave more fields fallow through winter, allowing time for
black grass to be treated with broad herbicides before the spring sowing
Such thinking appears to have been evident in a 9% jump in
spring wheat sowings to a four-year high of 725,000 hectares, the bureau said.
"The latest increase is primarily driven by greater areas in
the East Midlands, South East and Eastern England.
"This suggests that spring barley is benefiting from a
continued and growing interest in spring cropping in efforts to control
black-grass, plus as a replacement for previously lost oilseed rape crops."
Rapeseed sowings in England and Scotland fell for a fifth successive
year to a 13-year low 553,000 hectares, a drop blamed on a neonicotinoid
insecticide ban which has allowed the growth of cabbage stem flea beetle as a
The AHDB added that with wheat stocks down heading into 2017-18,
and plantings of the grain depressed, "yields will need to exceed 2016 levels
for UK supplies to increase".
Prospects look particularly light for output of feed wheat,
with sowings of lower grade, so-called Group 4 varieties accounting for only 48%
of all-wheat area, the lowest proportion in eight years.
"Subject to yields and quality, feed wheat supplies may be
relatively tight again in 2017-18,"the bureau said.
The comments come amid a period of elevated ethanol
production by the Vivergo and Ensus plants, which use low-quality wheat as a
By contrast, the proportion of higher grade Group 1 and 2
milling wheat varieties sown, at 40%, is the highest on records going back to
"Interest in Group 1 and 2 varieties has witnessed a
resurgence in recent years since the introduction of higher-yielding varieties,"
the AHDB said.
The sowings make-up leaves UK farmers as potential
beneficiaries of the upward pressure on quality premiums exerted by drought-dented
prospects for Canadian and, especially, US spring wheat crops.