Now you see it, now you don’t. Such is the size and speed of modern combines that one day’s landscape of golden grain waiting for harvest is tomorrow’s several hundred acres of straw waiting to be baled, or already baled, with thousands of tonnes of grain safely in store.
That’s what happened in the last few days of July and the start of this week as combines throughout the Borders and north Northumberland tore through the winter barley crop and made a start on oilseed rape.
For all that estimates of probable yield can be made while walking through crops pre-harvest, most growers don’t feel comfortable – or otherwise, depending on what happens – until combine grain tanks are filling and trailer loads of grain are coming in to store.
That’s when they get an idea of whether almost a year’s care, effort, and expense in growing winter barley or oilseed has paid off.
For winter barley the answer this year for most growers on medium or heavier soils is that yields are satisfactory to good because heavy rain in June came just in time to rejuvenate crops suffering from the long dry spell of April and May.
But winter barley on lighter land didn’t recover so well and yields are lower. The same pattern could be true for oilseed and even winter wheat. Looking a little further ahead, there seems to be general agreement that spring-sown barley yields will be lower, much lower in some cases, than average.
High prices for all types of grain, especially for malting barley, will compensate. But not for the first time, or I’ll bet the last, growers with forward contracts at lower prices than those now being offered, can only grit their teeth.
In between are those who sell through co-operatives. Putting together much bigger tonnages of grain than most individual farmers can manage, co-ops are in a better bargaining position with buyers. They also have the large-scale cleaning, drying and storage facilities that few farms have and can market grain steadily throughout the year.
They might not get the highest spot prices that some farmers pride themselves on getting by clever dealing, but co-ops usually avoid the worst troughs.
The argument about whether to sell livestock, grain, potatoes, vegetables or any other farm commodity through a co-op has gone on as long as I can remember. Every year, organisations such as the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society produce statistics to indicate that the amount of farm production handled by co-ops has increased, and every year I meet farmers with every size of operation who still prefer to do their own selling.
I guess co-ops with good member discipline and a good marketing track record gradually attract more members while we all remember the badly run co-ops that fail.
Back in the harvest fields, one oddity, although I’m not sure that something happening two years in succession can be described as that, is that while winter barley grain is definitely ripe and in most cases low moisture content, straw is not ripe. That’s why, in spite of ready demand for big bales of straw straight off the field, some farmers prefer to let straw lie for a day or two and lose some moisture before baling – at least if they’re going to use it themselves this winter rather than selling, when as much weight as possible is preferable.
The good spell of weather at the end of July also brought relief and pleasure to the organisers of the Border Union show at Kelso and one or two survivors of that band of hope, haymakers.
The result for Kelso show was a big attendance on both days, particularly Saturday, in wonderful sunshine. Obviously not every farmer in the Borders and their staff were cutting winter barley as the long line of vehicles snaked in to Springwood Park, car parks filled, livestock judging went on with its usual quota of successes, failures and occasional bouts of petulance and bad temper, stand-holders met regular customers who were better-dressed than usual and innovations such as lifting the trial potato plots attracted attention, along with main ring entertainment.
For haymakers, a spell of dry weather and a well-cured crop, whizzing through the baler and smelling good, was proof that the crop still has a place in spite of British summers that seem more unpredictable each year. Those making high-priced small hay bales for horse owners and livery stables were particularly happy while whoever supplies the small packages of hay sold in garden centres and pet shops for, my estimate, about £2,000 a tonne, must have been ecstatic.
The weather forecast for August is, to no one’s surprise, for occasional hot spells and quite possibly frequent showers and occasional heavy rain and thunderstorms. In other words, our guess is as good as that of the Met office. Happy harvesting.