This article first featured in South East Farmer December 2008
Scorpion Engineering's Bob Kendall was surprised when a customer called him a few weeks ago and said:
Lack of storage is becoming a common complaint amongst grain growers as yields increase and farmers respond to the worldwide demands for more grain; but as this year's harvest showed, good drying facilities are also increasingly important. Nature gives - but it also takes away. While cereal yields were good this harvest, the wet weather at the end of the growing season meant moisture content was as high as 25 percent in some cases. On balance it was reasonably good news for those with decent drying facilities but not so good for those who had to pay to dry much
- and in some cases all - of their wheat. With prices also depressed after the record highs seen at the end of last year, it wasn't a year to be trying to find a way to dry huge quantities of wet crop.
This year, perhaps more than any other in the past 25 years, really put grain storage and drying facilities to the test across the south east. On-floor systems struggled to cope with the variation in moisture content in different areas of the store, and while continuous flow dryers did better, many suffered from inadequate pre-storage, with grain often overflowing into concrete yards, where it risked a further soaking.
"Farmers need to think carefully about their buffer storage capacities for both before and after drying so that they can cope with the higher yields and the ability of modern combines to cut corn at much higher moisture contents", explained Bob.
Grain Harvesters never closed their doors to farmers despite the difficult conditions during the 2008 harvest, and while drying wheat is a commercial operation for the company, Charles was far from happy with the wet weather. "Yes it makes money for us, but we don't enjoy a wet harvest. It's much more difficult and time consuming to intake wet wheat and everything takes much longer. Like all the farmers out there I really hope that was a one-off." Some farmers have already responded to the challenge that another wet harvest will pose. Bob Kendall estimates that there is an extra 15 to 20,000 tonnes of on-farm storage available this year compared to 2007. There is about the same again already in the pipeline for next year as farmers seek to capitalise on the worldwide shortage. Many are looking for more conventional buildings rather than traditional silos, as they are more adaptable. "You can't store a tractor in a silo," Bob explained. Drying systems can either be linked into existing buildings or provided as part of an entirely new storage facility, and while on-farm storage keeps transport costs down, Bob is also keen to see new combined stores at ports. With the UK a net exporter of surplus grain, about three to four million tonnes a year leaves the country, with much of the Kent produce being shipped out from Dover, Rye or, increasingly, Ridham Docks, where Swale Borough Council is keen to see greater use being made of the facilities. "With the world's population rising, demand for grain can only increase. As a product that can be stored safely and efficiently in the long term, the country really should be encouraging farmers to grow and store greater quantities of grain. The world has 40 days supply of grain in stock; just 20 years ago that figure was as high as 200 days, which puts it into context. While there may currently be a short-term surplus in the European Union, we live in a world market and the world has an increasing population. Politicians need to look at the bigger picture and encourage and support grain farmers. Domestically, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has suddenly started talking about food security, which also has significant implications for farmers. In the past 10 years the UK's self-sufficiently in all food produce has dipped by 15 percent."
Kent NFU chairman Kevin Attwood had to dry every tonne of wheat he harvested, a situation he has never encountered before in a farming career stretching back at least 30 years. "It really was probably the worst harvest we have ever experienced. Our store (at Down Court Farm, Sittingbourne) was full to the door and spilling out across the concrete." Kevin agreed that farmers would be forced to invest in more on-farm storage in order to be prepared for similar conditions in the future. "As well as building drying facilities, cereal growers have to be able to put the cut crop under cover and hold it until they can dry it." He said the South East still did better than other parts of the country, escaping the absolute worst of the rain and benefiting from a good quality harvest, even if the moisture content was high. "It could have been worse - but we really do need to encourage farmers to invest in new facilities," he concluded.
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