UK wheat imports are to fall sharply, but those of corn will not, fuelled by a switch in grains by consumers exploiting Ukraine's increasing supplies of competitively-priced maize.
The UK will import 1.62m tonnes of wheat in 2013-14, a drop of 45% year on year, farm ministry Defra said in its first estimates for the season, which started in July.
The decline reflects largely an improved-quality harvest, meaning that "a higher proportion of domestic wheat has achieved milling specifications", reducing the need for imports to make flour, the HGCA crop bureau said.
While imports for the first three months of 2013-14 soared 40%, "this pace is expected to slow in the coming months as millers decrease imported wheat usage back to more typical levels", HGCA market specialists manager Charlotte Garbutt said.
However, Defra is also forecasting a 14% slide to 5.90m tonnes in use by UK farmers of wheat as feed, well below historical averages, thanks to the grain's relative expense compared with alternatives.
Defra forecasts, UK wheat balance sheet 2013-14 and (change on year)
Production: 12.101m tonnes, (-8.7%)
Imports: 1.615m tonnes, (-45%)
Food, industrial consumption: 7.805m tonnes, (+3.1%)
Feed: 5.903m tonnes, (-13.6%)
Seed: 295,000 tonnes, (-3.0%)
Total consumption (includes others): 14.064m tonnes, (-4.8%)
Corn use in feed, at 1.02m tonnes – while down 2% on last year, when the poor quality of the domestic wheat crop rendered much of it unfit even for livestock rations, encouraging maize imports – will remain at twice historic levels.
The comments tally with trade observations of the increased popularity of corn among consumers which have become more comfortable with the grain, after being forced to use it last year, and are being encouraged to stick with it thanks to price differences.
"It is becoming clearer by the day that we are going to see more corn used this year," a UK trader told Agrimoney.com.
"Any why wouldn't you? It's £20 a tonne cheaper," with values depressed by bumper harvests in the US, which sets global values, and Ukraine, a major shipper to Europe.
Agrimoney.com has heard of one leading UK egg producer cancelling wheat deliveries in favour of imported corn, a move a major European commodities house termed "a sign of the times".
Defra forecasts, UK corn balance sheet 2013-14 and (change on year)
Imports: 1.58m tonnes, (-6.7%)
Human, industrial consumption: 485,000 tonnes, (+17.7%)
Feed: 1.017m tonnes, (-1.8%)
Total consumption (includes others): 1.616m tonnes, (-3.5%)
"The Ukraine has had a bumper crop of corn and with plentiful supplies in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland, there will be more than enough available for consumers in northern Europe from now on."
Ukraine, which has seen 2013-14 corn exports rise 27% to 5.32m tonnes so far, on Wednesday raised its forecast for overall grain exports this season by 2.5m tonnes to 32.5m tonnes.
Another trader told Agrimoney.com: "I had never realised how popular corn is with the cattle boys in the west.
"It is much easier for animals to digest than wheat."
Meanwhile, a major Cargill-owned chicken producer has raised to one-third the level feed coming from grains other than wheat, Agrimoney.com was told, although there are limits, of about 15%, to the level of corn that can be included in rations.
"The problem is that it starts to turn the meat yellow," Richard Whitlock, grain and biofuels consultant, said.
"Proper yellow, corn-fed chicken gains a premium. But chicken with a yellow tinge is seen as undesirable."
For egg producers, the higher protein level in wheat than corn was also a factor to bear in mind, he added.
UK corn imports
2012-13: 1.687m tonnes
2011-12: 985,165 tonnes
2010-11: 1.041m tonnes
2009-10: 897,774 tonnes
2008-09: 951,745 tonnes
Source: HM Customs
Both UK ethanol plants, Ensus and Vivergo, "have sharply reduced their wheat intake programmes with substantial tonnages being rolled over into December", the European commodities house said.
While this is in part down to Vivergo's delayed ramp up to full capacity, replacement of wheat with corn is also seen as playing a role, with Agrimoney.com being told of a 25,000-tonne corn delivery to Ensus two weeks ago.
Defra pegged the UK's corn imports in 2013-14 at 1.58m tonnes, equivalent to 20% of the European Union total forecast for the season.
Indeed, excluding last season, when corn imports were spurred by the dismal UK wheat harvest, it would be the highest figure in 20 years.