View from the East by Dr Keith Dawson

This time of year is always a delight to the eye when the verdant green turns to russet gold and the cereal harvest races forward to meet us – it's an exciting time of year when the fruits of a year's labour ripen and mellow.

This year marks our longest and largest harvest campaign ever. Our expansion last autumn to almost 200,000ha, or to put it another way 2000km2 of crop has created many challenges this season. This means that over the next five months, we have nearly 1.5m tonnes of produce to gather safely in, transport and deliver securely to store.

The integration of two companies with differing past cultures – one larger, barely struggling to survive after being rescued from past gross financial mismanagement four years ago and our own, with tight financial management and controls. One which has grown spectacularly, but prudently from 90ha to 45,000ha since 2005, and the other which was an agricultural giant in Ukraine, but with crumbled weak foundations.

Ours comes with a culture of careful environmental stewardship and maintaining soil health, crop rotation and fertility, based on Scottish thrift and governance, while the other, due to force of financial necessity, maximised spring crops at the expense of healthy rotation and 'mining' the soil by applying zero P and K. The very definition of unsustainable.

Attempting to pull these opposite poles together has been an immense challenge. It is still very much a work in progress and in the balance. In my experience in these type of projects, it is very difficult to avoid water flowing to the lowest possible level and changing cultures takes time, especially in Central Eastern Europe.

That said, our winter barley harvest is almost 75% completed and so far yields are below budget and previous years by around 15%. Across 20,000 ha of barley at $175 per tonne, this is a considerable sum straight off the EBITDA line. Yields across Ukraine are down, which is good news for Scottish grain prices.

We are looking into potential reasons for our shortfall. As is borne out by long experience, such differences invariably result from a complex range of factors and events with an additive effect. Weather has played it's part for sure, but other factors cannot be totally discounted without rigourous investigation.

The cultural landscape of Ukraine is, sadly, one of corruption and theft, unless proper systematic checks and balances are fully in place. It is an ongoing battle to ensure these are optimal, with security costs in the business which would make a Scottish farmers eyes water. The use of GPS technology is critical in monitoring and securing field and transport operations.

Harvest progresses and later maturing barley varieties and fields appear to be slightly higher yielding at the time of writing. Current reported barley yields and quality are the poorest recorded since we started growing the crop – and early rape and wheat yields do not look encouraging.

To provide a perspective on these yields, it is worthwhile looking at the crop progress through the season. The crop was established well in the autumn and overwintered in good condition as highlighted by weekly crop scores. Optimum plant numbers and ear numbers were achieved in most crops and prospects remained high throughout the season.

Due to a carefully planned and applied disease control programmes, based on Aviator and chlorothalonil, crops were kept very clean and healthy. The wet weather during flowering produced some uncharacteristic fusarium ear infection, but at relatively low levels.

The spring was abnormally cold and late, but crops came through this well into a very dry spell and were well rooted at depth. Following the dry April, May brought heavy rainfall (up to 200mm) this brought high lodging pressure, but our PGR programmes protected against this. It was noted that other farmers crops were noticeably showing much higher lodging than ours at the time and at this point our crop potential looked excellent.

In June, there were two challenges – sporadic local hail storms and 10 days of intense heat greater than 30°C during the last period of grain fill. Grain size, being the last of the three key yield components – along with plant and ear number – was hit hard as reserves literally 'burned' up.

As noted at the time, the unusual high temperatures finished off the winter barley more quickly than usual and led to an earlier harvest at much lower than normal grain moisture contents, down as low as 11% in places.

Hail may also have damaged some crops locally in small pockets, leading to ear loss just prior to harvest, plus, as always contractors need to be monitored closely to avoid harvest losses through excessive speed and cutterbar losses. We shall see how the rest of the harvest progresses.

Visits and reports from other parts of Europe suggest the intense heat during grain fill has had a significant effect and will move grain prices. Time and the combine will tell the story.

I was delighted in early July to visit and speak at the inaugural and well-attended Arable Scotland event, at the James Hutton Institute, in Dundee. The Scottish Society of Crop Research provide significant funding for this new initiative, as it has for RHET this year.

In challenging times, it was good to see the whole industry come together to share knowledge and experience on such a wide range of important topics. The only way arable farmers have succeeded in keeping heads above water, with decades of historically low grain prices, is implementing new technology effectively.

One major area of concern highlighted by Professor Fiona Burnett and myself was the loss of important crop protection active ingredients through misguided legislation. This will increase resistance risks on remaining chemistry and put more pressure on varietal resistance and margins.

Although proposed as part of a future sustainability plan at the event by some, I feel biostimulants are still far short of achieving good results in the field and are no replacement for existing proven chemistry. Another major threat is the Scottish Government's zero carbon agenda.

The use of precision farming was featured at the event and here there are real benefits. The use of drones to improve targetting of inputs was featured heavily. We have flown more than 40,000 ha with the more stable fixed wing drones in Ukraine this year to aid evaluation.

Sadly, I have to relate we have not seen any tangible benefit thus far. This technology will come, but extravagant claims and froth do little to convince when margins are tight.

A good example is pre-harvest glyphosate. It is no good spending £8/ha to save £8/ha. Life is too tough to be a busy fool. Potato growers will have another opportunity to glean excellent technical information to aid profitability at Potatoes in Practice at James Hutton on August 8.

PiP is the largest potato field technology demo in the UK and last year over 700 attended this excellent day. Technology is fundamental to our farming futures.

It was both humorous and frightening to hear Boris Johnson cite the success of the Apollo landings, as a metaphor for the ease with which technology could solve the Irish border problems. A little more research would have taught him that due to unforeseen minor air currents on separation, the lunar module ended up miles from the intended landing site in uncharted and unknown territory.

These unplanned and unforeseen events seriously risked the lives of the astronauts, who were lucky to escape alive. On reflection, maybe it's not such a bad metaphor for the uncharted Brexit risks that our industry is now facing.

The Apollo landing relied on years of careful planning by highly trained teams of experts. Brexit and the Irish border issues appear to rest on one man with a questionable and unquenched lust for power, above his abilities, and a penchant for lying about kippers. A man more often out of his briefs, than on top of them.

Time will, indeed, tell what harvest we will reap.