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UK poised for wheat import surge, as 'dire' weather hits crop quality

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The impact on UK wheat quality of “dire” growing conditions was laid bare in data showing a plunge to less than one-third in the proportion meeting full milling specifications, underlining the need for hefty imports.

 

The AHBD bureau, issuing results of its first survey on the quality of the 2020 wheat harvest, estimated at 31% the proportion making full specification.

 

That was “considerably poorer” than the initial figure of 55% last year, the bureau said.

 

“Protein levels in particular have struggled to meet spec.

 

“The results… make clear the effects of a dire crop growth season,” marred first by inundations which prevented a large proportion of autumn sowings, followed by a dry spring, with the second half of last month providing a further test through harvest-time rains.

 

Downgrade to come?

 

Indeed, the AHDB signalled that the 31% figure could end up even lower, given that more than 40% of crop remained to be harvested as of August 18, with anecdotal reports of significant quantities still remaining in the field, in particular in more northern areas.

 

“We could see some implication for Hagberg falling numbers,” a key milling specification which is particularly sensitive to damage from harvest-time rains, “on the remaining area of the crop hit by mid-to-late August rainfall,” the bureau said.

 

Two further surveys “will include quality figures impacted by this rainfall”.

 

‘Greater volume of imports’

The figure underlines the prospect of the UK requiring a “greater volume of imports”, the bureau said.

 

The UK - which imported some 1.0m tonnes of wheat after the bumper 2019-20 harvest, and 1.8m tonnes the season before – requires anyway some supplies of typically higher quality wheat.

 

Canada, a grower of high-quality spring wheat, was the top origin for purchases last season, at more than 440,000 tonnes.

 

Bread vs biscuits

Grain marketing consultant Richard Whitlock, a former director of the AHDB’s crops board, told Agrimoney that the import requirement could be as much as 3m tonnes this season.

 

That was a level last approached in 2012-13, at 2.85m tonnes, after one of the wettest UK years on record sent quality tumbling.

 

“Germany will likely account for a lot of the bread making wheat, after their better harvest this year. But it will also be topped up by Canadian wheat, and maybe American.”

 

However, he highlighted potentially a biggest test replacing the slightly lower grade, so-called group 3, wheat used for making the likes of batter, biscuits and cake.

 

“At least you will be able to find the high-grade milling wheat. It is more the grade 3 that may be more difficult to get hold of.”

 

Production estimates

Estimates for the harvest are centred around 10.0m tonnes, which is the US Department of Agriculture estimate, although with the International Grains Council 10.5m tonnes, but some market talk of figures of 9m tonnes or less.

 

Mr Whitlock estimated that a figure of 9.75m tonnes was “not going to be far away” from the result.

 

The 2019 UK wheat harvest came in at 16.23m tonnes, according to farm ministry Defra.

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