UK wheat supplies, sapped by successive years of production shortfalls, will drop this season to their lowest since the aftermath of the 2012 inundations, despite the shift in feed demand to alternatives – particularly oats.
The UK farm ministry, Defra, in its first forecast for UK cereals balance sheets in 2017-18 pegged the country’s exportable wheat surplus at 1.05m tonnes, a drop of 35% year on year.
A surplus at that level - which excludes a 1.60m-tonne allowance for pipeline supplies – would be the lowest in four years, and the hangover from 2012, one of the wettest years on record, which devastated production that year and hampered sowings ahead of the 2013 harvest too.
However, the follows a 2017 harvest which, while up 6% year on year, is expected to short of demand for a second successive year.
Spring vs autumn
The dynamic reflects in part the decreased popularity of wheat with farmers, in part thanks to weak prices, but also a shift towards spring sowings prompted by the spread of black grass, which has spurred many farmers to hold off on autumn seedings to allow the weed to be sprayed off.
Little wheat is spring seeded in the UK, with barley and silage maize common alternatives.
UK wheat sowings ahead of the 2017 harvest fell for a third successive year, and are forecast dropping for 2018 too, results on Tuesday of an AHDB survey showed.
‘Reduction in ethanol capacity’
However, UK wheat demand has increased markedly too thanks to returns to production of Ensus and Vivergo, the two ethanol plants in the north east of England, although news two weeks ago that Vivergo is to shut for maintenance earlier than planned has cast some doubt over this revival.
While demand for UK wheat for human and industrial consumption soared by 10.3% to 8.12m tonnes in 2016-17, on a July-to-June basis, Defra forecast only a marginal further increase this season, to 8.13m tonnes.
“A temporary reduction in UK bioethanol capacity is assumed in these estimates,” said the AHDB bureau, which Defra consults in drawing up its balance sheets.
Coarse grains battle
The data also foresee a sharp slowdown, to 1.2% from 3.0% last season, in growth of wheat consumption in livestock rations, as feed buyers raise their focus on alternative grains.
Use of barley in feed is forecast expanding by 4.6% to 4.03m tonnes, and of maize by 6.7% to 1.27m tonnes.
Oats consumption for feed is seen soaring 18.9% to 340,000 tonnes.
UK oats output soared 14.3% to 933,000 tonnes this year, an historically high figure, buoyed by the change in sowings patterns, with the grain either spring or autumn seeded.