The harvest is nearly home - but how badly has summer's lack of sunshine hit this year's yields?

Written by Tony Millett on .

The general consensus among farmers in the Marlborough area is that the lack of sunshine in the critical growing months of early summer has reduced yields considerably.

James Sheppard, who farms at Poulton Grange to the north-east of the town, told Marlborough.News: "It's an average harvest - the crops just didn't get the sunlight they needed."

This broad analysis is backed up by Marlborough's weather watcher, Eric Gilbert, who reports: "Sunshine for June 2016 totalled 48 hours whereas in 2014 and 2015 we received 142 and 168 hours respectively. "

"July 2016 was close to the average with the preliminary figure for August being around 165 hours, which will be twice that received in 2015 and 50 per cent more than in 2014.   Data for global sunshine and solar energy for these three months supports these comparisons."

So the year was not good for growing, but good for the harvest - despite the spells of rain.

The latest countrywide survey Marlborough.News has seen puts the yield for barley down 18.6 per cent on last year and oilseed rape down 21 per cent.  The yield for wheat is down about 14 per cent, but last year's yield was at record high levels.

Richard Butler of Wootton Rivers, says that yields and quality are mixed and depend area by area on the weather. For instance, if you finished harvesting wheat before the recent rain, then the quality of your crop was very good.  As the harvest goes on it will go down.

James Sheppard says the price farmers are getting for their grain is low - down to 1984's level.  We spoke while he was drilling a field for next year's harvest:  "I'm planting in hope things will get better. It's untenable to keep going on as we are - whether Brexit will make any difference we just don't know - and may not know for five years."

A combine offloading grain A combine offloading grain   Combining oilseed rape close to the hedgeCombining oilseed rape close to the hedge

When we contacted George Hosier of Wexcombe Farm to the north-east of Marlborough on Tuesday (August 30), he had about five or six days of combining left - one day of wheat, two days of spring barley and two to three days of peas: "Fingers crossed that the weather holds!"

George was glad to have missed the worst of Saturday's thunderstorm.  He writes:
"With radical change (see 'Time for a change' on Marlborough.News) come challenges. This second season of full no-till farming has been a challenge."

"The weather through the growing season has not been ideal for much except slugs. We had problems with slugs reducing plant populations in some crops, most notably our later planted spring barley on heavy clay ground and winter wheat following last year's oilseed rape."

"That said we have had some successes.   Our best yielding winter wheat was also our cheapest to grow.  This was in a field which has now been no-till for three years. Due to not moving any soil we have not germinated the weed seeds so very little herbicide was needed.  The slugs did not cause too much trouble in this field either."

"We have been trialing a different header on the combine - it's called a stripper header. This, as the name suggests, strips the grains out of the ear, leaving the straw standing - instead of baling and removing the straw (and with it many nutrients) or chopping it and leaving a mulch which attracts slugs."

Wexcombe Farm: the stripper header in action - under a worrying skyWexcombe Farm: the stripper header in action - under a worrying sky  "The drill is planting a cover crop into stripped barley stubble close behind the combine to get maximum growing time - a 'five minute fallow'!""The drill is planting a cover crop into stripped barley stubble close behind the combine to get maximum growing time - a 'five minute fallow'!"

"This stripper header has been a real success and our cross slot drill has worked really well in behind the combine, the real test will be whether the slugs are better or worse this coming winter where we have used the stripper header or where we have used our normal header and chopped the straw."

"The weather this harvest has been generally helpful with a good dry August allowing us to get a lot of the harvest done without spending too much on drying the grain."

"We were lucky last Saturday when we just caught the very edge of a thunderstorm, we had 11mm of rain in just 15 minutes, others between Pewsey and Devizes had around 70mm!"

On October 13, George Hosier is giving the Merchant's House Autumn lecture: Improving the soil - farming innovation past and present. ( Details here.)