Well, the weather earlier in the week certainly put paid to any ideas of a straight-through and straightforward harvest with the reintroduction of rain into the mix at just the wrong time.

And so starts the big annual challenge of getting the crops cut and safely into the store.

As we’re all well aware, in Scotland’s catchy climate – where days of rain can see combines forced to stand idle and a brief ninja shower blows plans of a solid day’s cutting out of the water – gathering in the crop is no mean feat.

But this year, perhaps more than any other, is likely to be only the beginning of the challenging multi-level game which faces the arable sector at harvest time – and well beyond.

For over the past 12 months, the weather, continued political machinations and a totally unexpected global pandemic, have conspired to put us in what can only be described as one of the most difficult marketing situations ever.

While the twists and turns associated with actually cutting the grain will no doubt have the usual series of high and lows, the next stage of actually moving the crop off the farm also looks like it could well be a trickier affair than normal.

For everyone who knows the situation that, with a fair old hang-over of good grain from last year and the slowdown in output of breweries and distilleries – due to the closure of pubs – there’s a heck of a lot of malting barley still lying, unused, in stores around the country. That’s even before we begin to consider the 50%-plus increase in the area of spring barley which has been sown south of the Border.

Although it often seems to be a case of ‘no excuse required’, with storage space at a premium at many of the buyers’ grain stores and the likelihood of additional coronavirus safeguards being in place, it’s a pretty fair bet that once our grain reaches our own stores, it’ll have a bit of a wait before it’s actually uplifted from the farm.

Whilst it certainly does look like this is on the cards, the fact that NFU Scotland has put out two press releases warning farmers not only to make sure that they think ahead when marketing their grain but that they also prepare for slow collection and turn-round, then it’s a pretty sure sign as to which way the deck is stacked.

On the wheat front, it might be tempting to imagine that things might be a bit different, though. All other things being equal, you’d be forgiven for putting your money on an upward move in prices as the year progresses – so it might be tempting to hold on to some.

With winter crop plantings well back due to last year’s dire back end – and some of what did go in south of the Border, especially after tatties, not looking set to break any records – those that do such things are predicting a UK harvest of between nine and 10m tonnes. That’s a big drop from last year’s 16m-plus tonnes.

Although the UK domestic market is likely to be largely influenced by the price of imports, there’s still a fair chance of a bit of fluidity within the physical cash market through delivered premiums in the coming year.

The AHDB had said that the size of those premiums will depend on nearby supply and demand: “For example, if you are a feed mill that requires a demand of 1000 tonnes, you would be unlikely to charter a 4000-tonne capacity vessel to be used to import crop to the East Coast. More likely, you are going to dip into the domestic market, which – depending on your geographical location – will depend on your potential price.”

Sadly, all things aren’t necessarily equal in a year where the unforeseen and knock-on consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic continue to bite.

While, as noted above, the slump in demand from breweries and distilleries for barley has led to a considerable overhang of this crop on the market, it’s almost inevitable that there’s going to be a significant proportion of the additional 52% planting of spring barley finding its way onto the feed market.

Though barley and wheat are far from being directly interchangeable, it’s amazing the amount of substitution that can occur in feed rations – but only if the price is right.

Adding further to the sea of troubles, there’s also still the great Brexit unknown – and there would need to be a fair old scramble to get the huge amount of barley which is likely to be surplus to our own requirements shuffled off abroad before the end of the year. That’s because the way the negotiations have been going recently, we could well find the tariff drawbridge barriers being raised up against us if any deal isn’t thrashed out with the EU.

Although the UK’s proposed tariff scale for imported grain – which was released by the UK a few months ago – certainly looked to be a less one-sided affair than the previous year’s gambit on most grains, it wasn’t all good news here either. That tariff of around £10 a tonne on maize is likely to be dropped, for some reason best known only to the UK Government.

Again, while they’re not perfectly interchangeable, not only can this foreign corn replace wheat in feed rations, but it might also have an attraction for some distillery operators. Now that really would come as a further blow when it’s been an uphill struggle to get some of them to use home-produced wheat in the past – especially as maize prices are currently lying well below that of wheat.

So, while harvest time is always full of surprises, it looks like there’s still everything to play for – but this year, in particular, it might be wise to adjust the tactics for the game going on into extra time!