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 bureau.
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.
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 season.
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 crop pest.
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 major feedstock.
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 2006.
"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.
By Mike Verdin