Last year’s harvest in the North of England was always going to be a hard act to follow and 2023 results have been variable, with some disappointments.

Patrick Stephenson of NIAB TAG suggests that rotational changes may be required on some farms, in order to maintain business profitability.

Winter wheat yields fell “just on the right side of average,” according to Mr Stephenson.

“The 2022 harvest was always going to be one to beat,” he said. “Disease challenge was widespread among this year’s winter wheats and septoria infection was a common occurrence during June and July, with some crops also showing late-season lodging.

"Notwithstanding the high spend on fungicide treatments, disease pressure resulted in barely adequate results for many of the region’s growers and overall performance failed to meet expectations.

“Winter barley yields hovered around average levels and quality tended to be poor. Oilseed rape could not be described as a success, with harvest figures fluctuating wildly.

"Yields ranged from as little as 0.5 tonnes per hectare, up to five tonnes per hectare. The main yield threat came from pest attack and the loss of neonicotinoid treatments for the control of cabbage stem flea beetle was the main reason for failed crops. It also looks as if winter-drilled oilseed rape might be destined to suffer the same fate.”

The challenges of growing oilseed rape with the current restrictions on insecticide products have dealt a heavy blow to the industry, he commented.

“The crop potentially offers a superb break in the rotation and can help to boost first wheat yields, but we need to gain a greater understanding of how best to control the cabbage stem flea beetle.

The Northern Farmer: Patrick Stephenson, independent agronomist

"It seems that the highest risk period occurs in late to mid-August when the insect is on its migration path, but that is the ideal time for northern growers to sow their oilseed rape. Seeds cannot be drilled earlier because the previous crop must be harvested first and there can be delays due to the weather, while later drilling is likely to lead to high levels of pigeon damage. There are alternatives to neonicotinoid products, but they tend to be much less effective.

“When it comes to alternatives to oilseed rape to provide a break, there is no golden ticket. Oats, beans, or peas can fill the slot, and farms in places like Berwick and the Yorkshire Wolds are suitable for vining pea production.

"However, a market must be found before oats should be considered, and it is not always easy to make a profit on pulses. Growers are increasingly turning to grass as a break, but then of course that requires grazing livestock and the cost of infrastructure like fencing and water provision must be taken into account.”

The Northern Farmer: The 2022 harvest was 'a hard act to follow', said Patrick Stephenson

Unfortunately, the season also proved difficult for spring cropping, despite the potential benefits it offers for grass weed control, especially blackgrass.

“The harvest results for spring crops varied, depending on drilling date and whether they were affected by the early drought period,” said Mr Stephenson. “Only a small acreage of spring wheat is sown in the region, but barley, oats and beans gave the same below-average performance as winter wheats in most cases.

"This situation followed two or three good seasons for spring crop production and 2023 has highlighted the risks associated with the practice in the North of England.”

The Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) may offer greater scope for spring crops to be included in the rotation, by offering support for the sowing of legume species, he added.

“There are still a lot of questions surrounding the SFI and I expect the more marginal parts of the region to see greater uptake when the scheme is fully launched. The more immediate problem is how to deal with failed oilseed rape plantings and future plans may have to include major changes to the standard rotation.

“Arable farming is experiencing a period of high input costs and low crop prices. Even growers with access to good land with a high yield potential are facing problems, and grass weed control continues to present a challenge.

"This scenario runs alongside a general rise in the cost of cultivations and a 50 per cent reduction in the income from the Basic Payment Scheme, with further cuts in support payments on the horizon.

“It is not my intention to take a pessimistic viewpoint, but I would urge growers to work on the premise that crop margins will have to stand on their own two feet and some tough decisions may have to be taken. It does not make good business sense to rely on farm support to maintain profitability, when putting together forecasts and business plans for the years ahead,” concluded Mr Stephenson.