By Rog Wood
Farmers are enjoying one of the most favourable springs in living memory and are well ahead with their seasonal workload.
Lambing is progressing well, although there are reports of more ewes than usual with prolapses as a result of being too fat.
Although there has been a significant increase in winter wheat planting last autumn in the arable areas as a result of disillusionment with malting barley prices, there is now clear evidence that there has been a marked increase in the acreage of barley sown for feed this spring. That is partly due to the recent spell of dry weather allowing farmers to get ahead and tempting them to sow more, but there are other factors at play.
A fair number of livestock farmers have sold their setaside entitlements and that has released those acres for other enterprises such as grass, or growing spring barley without support payments. The main driver behind the increased area sown has been the dramatic rise in the price of livestock feed.
The cost of transporting feeding straw from the arable areas in the east has also made that an expensive option. Maize prices worldwide have increased substantially of late as a result of more of the crop being diverted away from animal feed to industrial use.
Harvesting grain in the wetter climate of livestock areas in the west is not such a risky venture thanks to recent developments in whole crop silage and has an increasing appeal to hard-pressed dairy farmers.
Seed merchants in the livestock areas are reporting that their sales of spring barley seed are up by at least 10% this spring, while local Scottish Agricultural College offices have seen a major surge in the demand for soil sampling in the past fortnight as farmers rush to check the lime status of fields prior to sowing them with barley.
Andy Legatt, of SAC's Ayr office, confirmed the situation. "We are starting to see extra barley fields on the IACS forms. It's happening right across the livestock sector, although with dairy farmers, I suspect, the intention is to harvest it as whole crop. With feed prices set to remain high it makes sense to be more self sufficient if you have the ability to grow grain," he said.
While there is no doubt that there is a marked increase in spring barley sowing, maltsters can take little cheer from the situation as none of that extra grain will be suitable for the malting barley market.
NFUS vice-president Stewart Wood said: "The increasing demand from food and fuel production can only be good news. We have already seen the impact that the rapid expansion of the bioethanol market in the US has had on global supplies. The development of renewable road fuels here, and the competing demand from the food and drinks industry should move us away from a decade where prices have been on the floor. Of course, the more positive outlook on grain brings difficulties to the livestock sector as the price of feed rises. That makes it all the more important that the supply chain works properly across agriculture. That means processors and supermarkets in particular recognising that when on-farm feed costs rise, so too must the prices they offer."