By Brian Henderson

Despite what might have started off as an early harvest, the patchy weather over the second half of August has seen Scottish growers lose this head start – fingers are now crossed for a decent spell to let the combines play catch up.

If my own area is anything to go by, most crops are now pretty much ready to go for cutting – and brackled barley could soon be challenging laid wheat and swung oats in requiring a closer than normal shave to keep header losses to a minimum.

However, we’ve managed to get some cutting done – and have even made a start into a couple of new varieties we’ve been trying for the first time.

While we’ve only cut a small acreage of the new wheat, Monroe (and I’m told it’s spelled as in Marilyn, not as in the hill over 3000ft) and although what we’ve cut of it was on some of the lighter land, it looks to be a pretty reasonable performer.

A bigger field awaits and should give us a better idea of yield, but it’s looking well at the moment.

As I write, I’m just off the combine from starting into the Laureate barley which looks to be producing a tremendous crop. While it might not be the bonniest sample to look at, there’s plenty coming off the combine. It doesn’t seem to be as bad as Concerto has been this year for brackling and leaving what look like a shag-pile carpet of dropped heads under the header – even with the crop lifters on.

But this delay across much of the country to the spring barley harvest getting into full swing has seen some unusual and possibly welcome phenomena.

The malting industry would appear to be in a bit of a hurry to get our grain into their stores in order to keep them going. And in a change from the usual, rather lackadaisical, ‘oh, is it harvest time already?’ attitude which the recent times of plenty seem to have instilled in the trade, they actually seem to have a bit more interest in getting hold of malting barley this year.

While the chief benefit of this might be a chance of prices improving on the spot market – or more likely ‘price to be decided’ section of a contract – there is also the additional advantage to growers who had managed to get early samples harvested of a pretty quick uplift of any grain which had been cut.

Although the latter point certainly isn’t the be all and end all, getting feet cleared and storage space freed up for later cut crops can sometimes play a key role in a huge game of chess, which harvest often represents.

So, with this in mind I found myself feeling a deal of sympathy for growers south of the Border when I heard that there had been a major glitch in the delivery of grain to one of their key outlets.

Apparently, the main crop assurance body in England, Red Tractor, hadn’t sorted out the re-registration of their scheme with the EU in time to allow them to continue validating the Renewable Energy Directive sustainability requirements.

This left growers in the lurch, with deliveries to the major biofuel outlets halting when Red Tractors’ accreditation ran out on August 6.

The requirement for the sustainability of biofuel production to be verified was introduced a few years ago by Brussels to ensure that the growing of such crops didn’t have negative environmental consequences – and the checks carried out by farm assurance scheme operators was adopted as the method of proving compliance.

However, the Red Tractor scheme’s five-year accreditation to do this ran out at the beginning of the month.

With an estimated 40% of the UK’s oilseed rape crop destined for use in biodiesel and several million tonnes of wheat going into bioethanol production, it wasn’t surprising that the lock-down on deliveries caused severe disruption for thousands of growers in the south.

So, there must have been a huge sigh of relief from these guys late last week when the EU finally – and, it has to be admitted, grudgingly – granted a temporary extension to the licence to sanction such crops and verify compliance with the EU’s biofuel sustainability criteria.

This short-term reprieve for these hard-pressed English grain growers must have come as a Godsend as grain piled up in sheds around the country.

Opinion is still split over where the fault lay – whether Red Tractor was too late in submitting its application or whether the European Commission was being unnecessarily slow in considering it, but when things lapsed at the beginning of August merchants and end users baulked at the possibility of any fuels produced from such grain being unmarketable and cancelled intakes.

From Scotland’s point of view, it was probably to the industry’s credit that our own crop assurance scheme, SQC – which wasn’t affected by the glitch and has its scheme recognised by the EU through to 2020 – didn’t gloat over the issue.

There was, however, a fleeting glimpse of an opportunity – and SQC did point out to Scottish growers that during the suspension there were distinct commercial opportunities to help out and supply this market.

As one well known member of the organisation put it, the glitch presented an opportunity for SQC growers to extend the hand of friendship – palm up – to our neighbours in the south.

But, in truth, this disruption to the flow of English grain and oilseed crops destined for the renewables market could have hit us two ways.

If the big biofuel plants in England, like Ensus and Vivergo, had decided to make up the shortfall using Scottish grain, then there might, indeed, have been a big opportunity for us. And, after years of seeing the traditional Scottish premium on wheat prices eroded away to nothing, a return to those glory days would certainly have been welcome.

On the other hand, though, if grain from outside the UK had filled the gap that would simply have seen more of this year’s iffy English wheat crop pushing up into our markets – and no doubt pushing the price down.

However, in the end, the last minute reprieve meant that neither of these scenarios arose.

But the issue does underline a sad fact in the global grain business – and that is that any likely improvements in our own markets generally come at a cost to someone else, be it in the form of bad weather, or political/infrastructure difficulties.