As we move through the final month of the year towards Christmas and the shortest daylight hours, once again it is time to start looking back over what has been a year to forget for most people.

The dreaded Covid-19 had taken precedence over everything since March and we are still not out of the woods yet. There are hopeful signs soon that a vaccine will start to be dispensed to everyone eventually but that will all take time and as yet it still has to be seen how effective and long lasting it will be as we move through next year.

Due to various lockdowns and individual local tier restrictions this has seen shops, pubs, hotels and restaurants closed, amongst many other premises, for long periods and this has affected food and drink consumption all year resulting in usage figures being greatly distorted from the normal usage ranges.

Food production and farming, by the very nature of its environment where many work on their own driving machinery in large outdoor spaces, meant that there was not the restrictions on seeding time and harvest, so life went on very much as usual in the field and steading area.

This meant production was not restricted, but produce was not able to be utilised by the public as normal.

Weather played its part as well, as the previous autumn saw some extremely wet sowing conditions which meant a lot less winter crop input and much more spring cropping had to take place instead.

This led to an imbalance in commodity tonnages for the UK and recently the first official AHDB UK cereal and supply and demand estimates for the 20-21 season were published and included a UK wheat deficit for the first time.

Normally, when the estimated operating stock requirement is taken away from the balance of supply and demand, a surplus is available for either export, or free stock.

However, with the wheat balance currently forecast as the tightest in decades, a deficit has been identified, due to many supply and demand factors.

Defra has provisionally put wheat output at its lowest level since 1981, at 10.1m tonnes and this resulted in total wheat availability falling by 23% on the year to 14.8m tonnes. Total domestic usage of wheat is also forecast to drop, but by a smaller amount of 8% to 13.4m tonnes.

This fall is driven by reduced demand from the bioethanol, starch and animal feed which leaves the balance of supply and demand at 1.3m tonnes, more than 3m less than last season.

An operating stock requirement of 1.5m tonnes has been estimated for this season and this requirement is an estimate of the minimum tonnage processors require to get through from the start of next season from July 1 until the new crop becomes available again at the beginning of the following harvest.

To clarify, when the operating stock requirement is taken away from the supply and demand balance, a deficit of 166,000 tonnes is identified and with the current exports figures to date built in to the equation this the deficit currently siting at 224,000 tonnes.

Due to the small amount of available wheat, some processors will probably import more at the beginning of next season, rather than carrying stocks over so this means that the full operating stock requirement is unlikely going to be carried over, so this would reduce the deficit volume a bit.

These amounts could change, if for example, other feed grains were used instead of wheat and this would reduce the deficit accordingly.

It should be stressed that these figures are not guaranteed to be entirely accurate as the exact amount of on-farm stocks is not known, so figures can vary accordingly to either increase or reduce the deficit.

Moving on from this year and looking at what the future holds the AHDB 'Early Bird Survey' has been recently released which takes a look at the cropping plans for 2021 harvest.

Due to this current autumn being much different from last year’s one in most areas a lot more winter cropping has been able to take place and into good seed conditions resulting in winter sown crops generally looking very well and more winter crop were able to be planted behind potatoes as they were in most cases lifted much earlier than last year.

October saw 100.4mm of rain followed by November with 30.2mm to give a total for the year to date of 571.6mm or 22.5 inches so this past month has suited any late potato lifting or autumn sowing.

The oilseed rape area has continued to drop and is now at its lowest planted area since 1986. This is down to continuous years of cabbage stem flea beetle issues, combined with years of poor planting and growing seasons, resulting in damaged crops.

In some cases, these had to be resown and next year’s crop area is estimated at 318,000ha, which is a decrease of 18.1% year-on-year.

The wheat area for 2021 is estimated to increase by 28.3%, with a cropping area of 1.815m ha and will be in line with the five-year average – apart from 2019-20 – and there is still some late winter planting taking place at this time.

The milder and drier autumn this year has seen the winter barley planted area also increase by 24% to 394,000ha, but this is still down on the previous five-year average of 429,000ha.

Due to the increased winter sowing this obviously means less spring sowing and the spring barley area for next harvest is expected to be around 767,000ha.

Excluding 2019-20, the spring barley area will still be above the five-year average of 711,000ha and the area of both winter and spring barley will remain over 1.1m ha.

The UK may need to compete for wheat and barley exports next season in a different world after Brexit, with a larger domestic wheat and barley area which have both remained relatively high.

Back to the present, domestic oilseed rape prices still remain close to the recent high levels seen for the 2020 crop and long term price support has been due to ongoing Chinese oilseed purchases, with the meal used to feed their recovering pig herd.

Following the low planted area of oilseed rape in the UK and the EU, the opposite can be said for Germany and Romania, where they have recorded the largest year-on-year increase in hectares.

A smaller European rapeseed area means that Europe will likely need to again import large volumes of oilseeds in the 2021-22 season, so UK rapeseed prices will need to stay high compared to global oilseed markets to attract imports and detract exports.

European soft wheat sowing for the 2021 harvest will be back to a five-year high due again to the better planting conditions up 2m ha to 24.9m ha, which includes the UK and would be the largest figure since the 24.3m ha recorded for the 2016 harvest.

Animal feed compounders are buying enough barley to cover their requirements until the end of the year as UK feed barley is still competitively priced at present.

The increased demand for UK barley of 583,000 tonnes up to a new total of 4.725m tonnes is the highest level seen for 20 years.

UK barley is almost competitive on the world market too, but two large tenders for barley from Turkey and Tunisia were won by sales from the Black Sea region.

The value of sterling, which strengthened again recently, had put the UK at a slight disadvantage and the completion of sales from the UK are required as containers continue to arrive at UK ports on the south and east of England coasts.

Global wheat markets have been helped by China’s continued purchases of US maize, with another 200,000 tonnes purchased recently.

There is talk of up to 7.2m tonnes of US sales to China, but some analysts say this total could reach 30m tonnes. This is causing uncertainty in the markets and, as a result, the Chicago Board of Trade price rose to its highest for four weeks and was helped further by a 30-month low in the value of the dollar and poorer than expected winter wheat crop ratings.

Australia is looking at a 30m wheat harvest this year, double that of 2019, which could be a factor in world trade.

Back in the UK, for old crop wheat, the currency issue and a tight balance sheet continue to be the main factors of concern. Ex-farm prices have shown little movement in either direction and may remain the same with volatile currency expected to remain a feature.

A firmer pound would make imported wheat more competitive and weigh on domestic prices, and as the AHDB figures stated, the UK needs to import 2.2m tonnes of wheat to balance this year’s books. To date, only around 1.25m tonnes are estimated to have been received.

Next year will be the time that the agricultural transition period will start and between 2021 and 2027 Defra will gradually reduce and then stop untargeted direct payments.

This will be one of the main topics up for discussion over the next few years and along Brexit, will be filling a lot of column inches in the near future. It's sure to make for some interesting reading during the festive season.