This year UK wheat harvest looks like recording a record protein
level – but is proving weaker on other milling specifications, despite a major
swing by growers towards planting higher-quality varieties.
The failure of seed from high-grade varieties to capture the
premiums that farmers had hoped for is raising ideas of a reversal towards
planting lower-specification varieties, as the autumn sowing season begins.
The protein level of the Great Britain wheat crop – which,
while excluding the Northern Irish result, comprises the vast majority of UK
output – "could be on track to be the highest on record", the UK's AHDB bureau
said, coming in at 13.2%.
That is well above the five-year average of 11.8%, and the
2016 result of 12.4%, besides ahead of the existing record of 12.7%, set in
James Webster, AHDB cereals and oilseeds analyst, said that "we
are seeing the highest ever average protein level for Great Britain" at the
current stage of analysis of the harvest.
'Questions over consistency'
However, flagging that the headline protein level is an inexact
indicator of baking quality, he added that "there will also be a number of
questions asked about the functionality of the protein, gluten, this season".
And he underlined relatively weak results for other major
milling specifications too, with the average specific weight – the weight of
grains in a given volume – at 76.8 kilogrammes per hectolitre, below the
average of 77.5 kilogrammes per hectolitre.
The Hagberg falling number – which in essence gives a
measure of the sprouting encouraged by rains falling on ripe kernels, and so a
factor in particular of years with wet harvest periods - was averaging 259
seconds, the worst result since the rain-devastated harvest of 2012, and behind
an average of 301 seconds.
With a "great deal of variation" between samples in Hagberg
number, ranging from 79 seconds to 432 seconds, Mr Webster said that the data
would "raise questions over the consistency of quality of the domestic wheat
crop relative to imported supplies".
Indeed, the proportion of British crop suitable for making high
quality bread wheat was, at 31%, smaller than the elevated level of 45% seen last
year, despite an increased proportion of the crop having been seeded with the
top-grade Group 1 or Group 2 seed varieties.
The proportion of British wheat seeded with Group 1 or 2
seed - at 40% - was up 9 points year on year, and the highest since 2006.
Nor are farmers being rewarded through a higher milling
wheat premium for a smaller proportion of crop making top grade.
While the milling premium, at some £12-15 a tonne, has
recovered somewhat from the lows of £3-5 a tonne seen around May-June,
depressed by the hangover of last year's high-quality crop, they remain well
below the long-term average level of £19 a tonne, according to CRM
For farmers growing under contract, minimum premiums have
fallen to as low as £15 a tonne, from historical levels of £20-25 a tonne,
according to the analysis group, based in the UK's key East Anglia grain-growing
Back to feed?
The combination of weak premiums, and the risk of growing
high-quality wheat in a country often dogged, as this year, with wet harvest
periods is provoking ideas of a reversal of the swing towards planting
high-quality wheat, as farmers start seedings for the 2018 harvest.
"A lot of farmers are questioning the value of growing
higher quality, breaking making varieties, given the extra cost involved,"
James Bolesworth, at CRM AgriCommodities, told Agrimoney.com.
"If they do not see a better premium, you may see more farmers
growing back towards Grade 3 or 4 wheat, biscuit of or feed grade.
"We are seeing more discussion around that."