The UK notched up a 15th successive month of net wheat imports, as flour millers turned to France and Germany for supplies – while exports fell to their lowest in more than 20 years.
UK wheat imports exceeded exports by nearly 253,000 tonnes in August, extending a run of net imports stretching back to June last year, customs data showed.
The extent of the figure reflected in part millers' continued quest abroad for supplies, in the face of a late domestic harvest, and one which was particularly difficult to predict in volume and quality following a dismal autumn sowing period, wet winter and cold spring.
Wheat imports from France, a major source of soft milling wheat, and Germany, a key origin for higher protein grain, topped 80,000 tonnes apiece.
Jack Watts, senior analyst at the HGCA grains bureau, on Tuesday said that UK buyers had set up large early-2013-14 imports as an "insurance policy" against a repeat of the "freak year" of 2012, when persistent and heavy rains left only 2% of UK wheat making top milling grade.
However, the customs data also showed UK wheat exports – which historically beat imports handsomely – tumbling to a trickle of 2,269 tonnes last month.
On a typical UK yield of 7.8 tonnes per hectare, that is equivalent to the harvest from 290 hectares – equivalent to the area of a single, reasonably large farm.
The export figure was also the lowest for any month since before 1992-93, when easily accessible records begin.
The biggest export volume, of 1,817 tonnes, went to the Republic of Ireland, with the Netherlands taking 408 tonnes, Belgium 28 tonnes, and Yemen 12 tonnes.
The paucity of exports appears a reflection "of the lateness of the UK harvest", and its weak volume, a senior UK analyst told Agrimoney.com, with crop development slowed by a cold spring, and output limited by an unusually wet autumn, which curtailed plantings.
Government data earlier this week pegged the UK crop at 12.1m tonnes, below market expectations, which had swollen to some 12.5m tonnes thanks to benign weather in the latter weeks of the growing season and into harvest.
A breakdown of the government data, plus estimates for the rapeseed crop and an oats harvest which may prove the highest in 40 years, will be released on Thursday at 09:30 UK time.
'To remain net importer'
In fact, UK wheat imports are widely expected to decline in coming months, thanks to the improved quality of the domestic crop this year, with an HGCA forecast of buy-ins totalling 1.41m tonnes in 2013-14 implying an average of 83,000 tonnes a month for the rest of the season.
Widespread demand for German wheat - for which exports are forecast by Strategie Grains rising 23% to 8.86m tonnes this season, boosted by a stronger harvest and world clamour for hard wheat – is also seen limiting the volumes heading to the UK.
Nonetheless, the HGCA has forecast that the UK "will almost certainly retain its net-importer status for wheat in a second consecutive season".
Wednesday's data also showed the UK returning to being a sizeable net exporter of barley, as it attempts to empty silos filled by the strongest crop in 16 years – a reflection of the extent of spring barley sowings on land left vacant by the difficulty of the autumn grains planting season.
Barley exports hit a one-year high of 114,839 tonnes.
Nearly half that, 54,186 tonnes, was shipped to Tunisia, a major feed barley importer.
UK co-operative Openfield on Monday revealed the shipment of 50,000-tonne feed barley shipment to Saudi Arabia.