AN INCREASINGLY technological approach to crops is paying dividends in farmers’ fields with this year’s harvest yielding some of the best results for almost 20 years.
Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss hailed UK farmers as some of the best in the world as new figures published by her government department showed a bumper year for crops alongside a growing uptake of more sophisticated farming methods.
The barley harvest reached almost 7.3 million tonnes - the largest UK barley crop since 1997 - with winter and spring barley up 7.5 per cent and 3.5 per cent respectively.
Yorkshire is leading the way in winter barley production, recording 730,000 tonnes of the crop this year, while the South West produced the most spring barley.
For the first time ever wheat grown in the UK has exceeded 16m tonnes for two years running. UK farmers grew nearly three per cent more wheat on their land compared to 2014 - up from 8.6 to 8.8 tonnes per hectare.
Overall, the cereal harvest stands at 24.5m tonnes, rivalling that in 2014 and making the last two years the decade’s most productive.
Leeds-raised Miss Truss said: “We have some of the world’s best farmers - it’s fantastic to see their hard work and expertise rewarded with a bumper harvest of crops that will be heading to our flour mills and distillers to produce some of our favourite foods, from bread and beer to breakfast cereals. It’s a fitting celebration of the work done over the last year by those in the food and farming industry - worth over £100billion a year.
“From using GPS to increase planting precision, to introducing new water-efficient crop varieties, our innovative farmers are embracing technology to unleash their full potential.
“Through our Food and Farming Plan we will set out our approach to help our farmers better harness data and technology to grow more and sell more British food, creating jobs and investment in this vital industry.”
The use of precision farming methods has grown in the last two decades, helping farmers increase production and improve crop quality, she said. For example, using GPS on farm vehicles when applying treatments to a field helps the driver steer accurately and reduces overlap when treating the field in parallel strips, saving six to ten per cent of inputs, fuel and time. The percentage of farms applying this method rose from 14 per cent in 2009 to 22 per cent in 2012.
Miss Truss said that through the Government’s Agri-Tech Strategy, £160m was being invested to help develop new farming-related technologies and translate agricultural research into practical applications.
Charley White, mapping and agronomy expert at York-based agricultural technology firm Precision Decisions, believes precision technology is on the cusp of greater take up as it becomes more affordable.
She said: “Tractors that have this technology fitted are now appearing on the second-hand market, and it is not true in every case, but as younger generations of farmers and farm managers come through, who use computers everyday, they will be more prepared to grapple with the technology.”
Rosey Dunn, regional board chairman at the National Farmers’ Union, who farms at Stockton on the Forest near York, said the efficiencies brought about by applying nutrients, insecticides and pesticides on crops using precision technology - provided the technology is affordable in the first place - can help farmers cut costs and lessen some of the impact of poor crop prices.
She said: “Just because you have a good harvest doesn’t mean you will get good prices for your crops, so anything that helps to cut costs is to be welcomed.
“In this volatile world marketplace we have to look at the best ways to make savings - efficiency is key.”
BUT, STRONG YIELDS ARE NOT ADDING UP
The glut of produce has raised concerns about how crop prices may be effected.
After the NFU’s own harvest survey results were published this month, Mike Hambly, the union’s combinable crops board chairman, said: “Cereal prices are global and like most commodities are currently low. We’ve already seen prices taking a 30 per cent tumble over the past two years and costs of production staying put.
“Many growers are facing the prospect that grain prices will fail to cover the cost of production. For some this will be the second year they have endured such a situation and with forward prices for next harvest also below cost of production some could see no profit from those crops for three consecutive seasons.”