Next few weeks crucial for farmers as survey confirms drastic reduction in crops

Friday, 15 March 2024

Another survey since our Early Bird Survey in November 2023 has revealed a drastic further reduction in cropped areas. The wet autumn meant lower levels of planting, and continued severe weather resulted in winter losses.

Cropping area headlines from the survey

  • Wheat  down 15% at 1.463 Mha (biggest reduction in cropped areas since 2020) 
  • Oilseed rape – down 28% at 280 Kha (biggest reduction since the 1980s)
  • Winter barley – down 22% at 355 Kha (biggest reduction since 2020)
  • Spring barley – up 29% at 881 Kha

The next few weeks will be crucial, says Helen Plant, AHDB Senior Analyst, and the wheat reduction could be greater, depending on the planting of spring wheat.

“Farmers still have the chance to plant crops such as spring barley and oats – but if heavy rain continues, crops will be planted at a point where they may become economically unviable.

“We are heading to the point where spring-sown winter wheat varieties will not be able to develop sufficiently to provide a viable crop.

"There is a clear intention to plant more spring wheat, but the persistence of wet weather means there is uncertainty about whether this can be done.

"While the area of spring wheat is small in comparison to the total wheat area, any areas that can’t be planted would further reduce the total wheat area.

“All parts of the UK have suffered. The East Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber are reported as the worst affected, with notable flooding in these areas. Less severe impacts are reported for Scotland and Southern England, where periods of less extreme rainfall seem to have allowed more planting to take place.”

Potential impacts

  • The UK will need to import more wheat in the coming year (1 July 2024 to 30 June 2025) and potentially in 2025/26. Prices are already reflecting this
  • Condition of crops is now a huge focus, with unfavourable weather putting the yield at risk of being significantly reduced
  • Depending on what happens in this year’s harvest, the availability of straw could be reduced, spreading the impact throughout the agricultural sector

David Eudall, AHDB Economics and Analysis Director, says if current market conditions continue, this may not influence consumer prices: 

“We may see wheat production fall from ~14 Mt to ~10 Mt or less, so wheat processors, flour millers and bakers will be looking to import greater quantities of wheat this season for production into bread and animal feed. 

“After seeing a period of heightened prices for cereals, the world market has now cooled off as supplies are strong around the world and the impact of the Ukrainian conflict has been absorbed into supply chains.

"So while we may need to import more, we’re doing this at a point currently where prices have fallen. These lower prices are one of the reasons we’ve seen food price inflation fall in recent months."

However, there is a longer-term risk:

“If we see continued lower production from poor weather, stubborn costs (e.g. fertiliser) and unprofitable prices, we will continually need more imports and further expose our market for a staple product in bread to the world trade. 

“A greater reliance on imports means that as global prices rise due to weather or geopolitics, UK food producers using wheat would need to pay a higher price to attract wheat into the country rather than having access to a locally available supply.

"So while current market conditions are favourable to consumers, they are not supporting farmers who are facing lower incomes and higher costs.

"If we see any gain in the global market through the coming season, it will be favourable for the bottom line of farmers, but we could see a return to inflationary prices for consumers.”