NIAB - National Institute of Agricultural Botany

Orson's Oracle

Wheat yields 2018

Posted on 03/01/2019 by Jim Orson

The summer of 2018 is clearly summed up by the autumnal picture of a banana tree in Clare College gardens, just down river from our house in Cambridge. It was hot and also it was very dry from late April onwards. In the UK, dry summers are often associated with high wheat yields but in my blog, written in early July (blog posted on 13 July), I suggested that it might perhaps prove too dry in 2018 and that wheat yields could be significantly down on average. The Defra statistics, released just before Christmas, show that yields were down by around 6% in the UK and 5% in England (see Table), when compared to the average yield for the previous five years.

So how good was my prediction? I suppose it all depends on what is meant by ‘significant’. I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the overall yields but some farms in the very driest parts of the country were well down. In East Anglia much depended on the amount of rain that fell in the last week of May. The West Midland regional yield was down by 9% compared to the average of the previous five harvests. The late spring and summer was particularly hot and dry in that region and the lighter soils, in particular, must have suffered.

In Scotland and the North West of England yields were down by around 18-20%. Unlike the rest of England, the establishment conditions in these areas were far from ideal and the growing conditions during the winter and early spring were hostile to plant growth. As a result the wheat crop was poorly developed when the drought conditions occurred.

As one would expect, second wheats were often particularly low in yield. In this rotational situation one would normally expect antagonistic soil biota to reduce root growth and hence restrict access to soil water during the prevailing extremely dry conditions.


Perhaps I can tentatively congratulate myself on my prediction if a reduction in average yield of 6% can be called ‘significant’. On the other hand, it may be that I have again over-estimated the impact of dry conditions on final yields. As I have said in previous blogs, solar radiation is typically above average in dry summers and this can more than compensate for a moderate lack of moisture. However, this year was so hot and dry that the very high levels of solar radiation could not compensate for the impact of high soil moisture deficits and for the much shorter period of grain fill that occurred as a result of the high average temperatures.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, the drought in the summer of 2018 was less severe than in 1976 when I was seeing crops showing drought symptoms as early as the end of April. In contrast, at that time of year in 2018 the soil moisture deficits were low or non-existent. This may explain why UK average wheat yields were down by 12% in 1976 rather than the 6% of this year. So, it could have been worse! Overall we must be very thankful that our wheat yields are so resilient from year to year.


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Looking back to the future

Posted on 24/08/2018 by Jim Orson

I have been motivated to emerge from blogging retirement by the latest AHDB Project Report on applied nitrogen (N) doses for feed winter wheat. As regular readers of my blogs know, I have a ‘thing’ about the subject. This is because field trials data do not support some of the underlining principles that have been used to develop the recommendations in RB 209. I eventually wrote papers on the subject in 2010 and 2012 (referred to in the AHDB report) and came to the conclusion that on mineral long-term arable soils, where little or no organic amendments are used, using a fixed dose of N produces economic margins at least equal to those using RB 209 as a guide. The field trials data indicate that only when Soil Mineral Nitrogen (SMN) levels exceed around 100 kg N/ha, equivalent to N index 4 and above, is there a consistent need to contemplate reducing doses of applied N.

The papers I wrote were met by a howl of outrage by many soil scientists. It seemed that I had committed heresy. However, their field trials data said the same as NIAB TAG’s. Some soil scientists insisted that the scientific literature backed the approaches taken by RB 209, particularly the influence of measured SMN on recommendations. I had already read the papers they quoted and knew that these actually concluded the opposite by detailing the lack of influence of measured SMN on the optimum economic dose of N for feed winter wheat.

Let me acknowledge that I was not the first to suggest a fixed dose of N for feed winter wheat. During the 1980s, the then newly available measurement of SMN and also the first attempts to estimate Soil Nitrogen Supply (SNS = SMN plus nitrogen in the crop in early spring plus an allowance for N net mineralisation of the soil) were being tested by ADAS for their possible role in N recommendations. A range of tactics employed in Northern Europe was tested. However, in 1987 ADAS reported that using a fixed rate of N gave as good or better prediction of the optimum economic dose than using measured SMN or SNS or an N index system as the basis of a recommendation.

Let us look at a couple of quotes from the latest AHDB report:

“Little relation between soil mineral N or grain yield and N optimum was observed.” The lack of relationship between measured SMN and N optimum is nothing new and the relationship between grain yield and N optimum has always been rather tenuous.

“….. in long-term arable situations with high yields where N requirements were expected to be similar, it was difficult to improve on recommendations beyond RB209 (or a single average N rate).” The last caveat is extremely important and reflects the following table from the report which shows that adopting a single fixed rate of N in all the trials was as cost effective as using RB 209. This very important conclusion is not mentioned in the abstract of the project report.

Comparison of different approaches to deciding N fertiliser rates

Using average results from previous trials on mineral long-term arable soils with little or no organic amendments, the single standard rates in the table are predictable and this approach has been the basis of NIAB TAG recommendations for the past few years. Please remember that field yields tend to be lower than plot yields because of lower yielding headlands etc.

It is worth highlighting that the basis of the RB 209 recommendations in the report was the Field Assessment Method. This is based on previous cropping. The approach based on measured SNS is now only being advocated where very high levels may be expected. The lack of a relationship between measured SMN and optimum doses in this report underscores the advice in RB 209 on which method to adopt.

I have often mused why measured SMN or SNS has so little influence on applied N requirement for feed winter wheat. There are some possible explanations. First of all, the efficiency of use of every extra Kg/ha of SMN or SNS above a threshold (i.e. the marginal efficiency) of around 40-50 kg N/ha (N index 0) is far less than the 100% assumed in RB 209. In this newly reported AHDB project this marginal efficiency of use of SNS was less than 50% when no applied N was used. Secondly, higher levels of SNS are often a reflection of good moisture retentive soils and/or a ‘better’ rotation and/or a more healthy soil, resulting in higher yields and consequently a higher N demand by the crop. This could largely offset the need to reduce N doses with increasing measured SNS levels until they become very high. Analysis of an extensive trials database suggests that there may be more than a grain of truth in this theory but the statistical analysis is not convincing. A third, and less techy possible explanation, is that measuring SMN, estimating SNS and also identifying an economic optimum dose are not precise exercises. There may well be other possible explanations. It could be that it is a combination of several factors that explain the lack of influence of measured SNS on optimum economic doses of N for feed winter wheat.

Another quote from the report is “Grain protein cannot therefore be used as an entirely reliable indicator for N management.” This is slightly at odds with the advice in RB 209 which suggests that “Farm nitrogen strategies for wheat can be assessed periodically using information on grain protein concentration.” Perhaps this statement in RB 209 is too dogmatic when it is clear that the AHDB original project report on this approach included caveats on using protein as a guide to optimised N management.

RB 209 recommendations remain based on some underlining principles with which I disagree. However, its recommendations have now been adjusted to reflect the average results of field trials. Does this mean that we have all the answers on N nutrition of feed winter wheat? We certainly do not. The project again demonstrates that there is a huge unexplained variation in the actual optimum economic doses between fields, farms and years. The report does emphasise that there can be an error around the optimum economic dose of plus or minus 50 Kg of applied N/ha without affecting too much the financial margin over fertiliser costs. However, there remain an uncomfortably high proportion of trials where the error in predicting the optimum is outside this range. As AHDB (HGCA) project report 73 (1993) concludes “current recommendation systems are similarly poor because they fail to identify fields with aberrant responses to N”. The 1987 ADAS paper I quoted earlier said that “measurements of SMN have shown promise where small optima are suspected [i.e. very high SMN levels]”. To be perfectly honest we are now back to exactly the same situation we were 25-30 years ago despite a huge investment in research on the subject in the intervening years. It is truly looking back to help define the future research needs of this very important subject.

Now, back to my retirement. There has been sufficient rain for me to sow cover crops on my allotment. I am hoping that the spring oats that I liberated from a farmer’s grain store last year are still viable.

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Wheat yields 2018

Posted on 13/07/2018 by Jim Orson

The very hot and dry weather continues. My galvanised watering can was much used in 1976 and the same can is now starting to leak in 2018. Perhaps I should buy a new one but I suspect that there may be a run on them. The watering can was bought in 1974 (ish) at the same time as a galvanised wheel barrow. The latter had to go to the dump only a handful of years ago. Time moves on!

The current weather conditions perhaps mean that there is no need to write a blog on predicting the 2018 wheat yields. The easiest years to predict relative wheat yields are those with extreme weather. The horrifically wet and dull summer of 2012 resulted in me predicting lower than average yields. What I did not take into account was the additional impact of waterlogging during the critical stages of grain filling. In areas which received the most rainfall this resulted in exceptionally low yields on the clay soils. Subsequent reading of the scientific literature indicates that waterlogging in the middle of the winter has some impact on wheat yields but its effect is very significantly greater during grain fill. The widespread waterlogging in March and early April this year must have had some impact on potential yields.

The most difficult years for prediction are those where the spring and summer weather is drier than average but not exceptionally dry and hot. Lack of rain usually means that solar radiation levels are higher than average. We really do not have sufficient understanding of the processes to predict yields accurately. The impact of soil moisture availability is hard to assess as is the efficiency of use of solar radiation. The latter varies according to several factors (

February and March were cold this year. In addition, March was generally very wet and it was really not until mid-April at the earliest that we witnessed good growth. This is in contrast to the high wheat yielding years of 2014 and 2015 which had dry and warm springs. The lack of solar radiation in April means that perhaps stem reserves, which are used to supplement grain fill, are this year lower than usual. The warmer than average weather during April and May means that the crops shot through the critical growth stages during which potential grain numbers are established and stem reserves continue to accumulate. So the signs were not positive even before the wheat crops experienced the hot and dry June.

Many people of my age look back at the hot and dry summer of 1976! This was a different type of year. It followed the hot and dry summer of 1975 and the 1975/76 winter was dry. It was so dry that, without any hindrance from the weather, I deep dug our front garden in Essex in order to get rid of a couple of skips of builder’s rubble. This is when my relatively new galvanised wheelbarrow came into its own! The spring of 1976 was very dry and I was seeing patches of drought stressed winter barleys on gravelly land in April. The only realistic summer rain in Essex fell on 21 June. It may be that the relatively dry winter meant that the crops were well rooted at the beginning of spring growth but of course at there was less moisture in the soil at this time than there was this year.

I have perhaps overestimated the impact of dry weather on yields in previous years but it seems obvious to me that wheat yields in the main arable areas of England must be well below average this year mainly, but certainly not solely, because of lack of moisture and the consistently high temperatures in late June and early July. Wheat prefers temperatures around 20 C, is not keen on 25 C, dislikes 30 C and positively hates 35 C. Higher temperatures not only have a direct effect on growth but also shorten the length of grain fill. This year the length of grain fill might be reduced from a typical 42 days to around 32-35 days in the main arable areas of England.

Hence, the cold February and March, a wet March, the higher than average temperatures in April and May and the very hot and dry June/early July do suggest very disappointing wheat yields this year where these weather conditions have prevailed. A hot ‘finish’ is associated with higher proteins and so, provided specific weights are OK, quality may be good. However, I think that I should finish with the caveat that when many grass crops mature under hot conditions, the dormancy of the seed is reduced. This is true of black-grass, wild-oats and cereals. Hence, rain before harvest could have a larger than average impact on Hagberg’s this year. It may well be worth starting an already early wheat even earlier should rain be forecast. 

Photo:  Many Australian farmers have suggested that galvanised steel is the most significant technical introduction in the development of their farms. This photo was taken was taken in a barn right next to the Murray River in the very north of South Australia. Makes you proud!

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Mind the gap

Posted on 02/07/2018 by Jim Orson

We have just returned from holiday and as the flight was on its descent into Stansted I witnessed a true cost of the failure to control black-grass effectively with herbicides. The spring barleys on the Essex clays did not look well. This is not surprising after a wet spring followed by the recent run of hot and dry weather. It is the kind of weather that many heavy land farmers have been dreading, but so far have avoided, having recently returned to spring drilled crops in order to break the black-grass growth cycle.

So it is clear: the inability to control pests, whether they are weeds or diseases or insects with crop protection products, can cost the farmer dearly and diminish food supplies. Despite this clear example, I read shortly after our return home that UN ‘experts’ have denounced statements that crop protection products are necessary to feed the world. The UN Human Rights Council has proclaimed that the idea that they are essential to feed a fast-growing global population is a myth. This is the same UN Human Rights Council that announced a few years back that Julian Assange’s time in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London amounted to “arbitrary detention”. This is on a par with the UN World Health Organization’s wish to appoint Robert Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador. It seems that UN committees are increasingly in the thrall of pressure groups.

The UN report on the “pesticide myth” was written by so-called food and pollution experts. However, they seem to have a funny view of the world. When discussing the very real issue of safe crop protection product use in countries which have undeveloped registration systems, they actually concluded that “the responsibility for protecting users and others throughout the pesticide life cycle and throughout the retail chain lies with the pesticide manufacturer”. This is comparable to saying that motor manufacturers have the sole responsibility for road safety in those countries with poorly developed traffic laws. Everyone can do better in increasing safe crop protection product use in some countries and this includes the UN. Luckily, some of the countries specifically mentioned in the report have now adopted GM Bt maize, soya or cotton which has resulted in a large reduction in the less than discriminate use of sprayed insecticides.

The report also praises the EU approach based on the so-called precautionary principle and criticises the USA for not adopting the same approach. I get the impression that many countries see that the role of the UN is to castigate western democracies, particularly the USA. That is by-the-by. The report says that US spray operators are insufficiently protected by regulations but does not acknowledge that surveys in the USA conclude that their spray operators are healthier than the average population. But… why let facts get in the way of a good dig at the USA!

So where has the more precautionary approach got us in Europe? It nearly got glyphosate unnecessarily banned despite huge health surveys in the US showing that the occurrence of the cancer it is accused of causing is no higher amongst farmers and spray operators. Neonic seed dressings are banned. Chlorothalonil (e.g. Bravo) is currently under the cosh despite being around for 50 years with no concerns, as far as I know, over its responsible use. Not only is it a key part of UK spray programmes for the control of septoria in wheat but it also helps to manage resistance of this disease in other fungicide groups. Chlorothalonil is also absolutely essential for the control of ramularia in barley. Hence, the loss of this active substance would have a significant effect on barley yields and productivity in the UK, at least in the short to medium term.

Perhaps we have reached the tipping point. There have been large numbers of crop protection products withdrawn over the last few years but, on the whole, the industry has got by and maintained productivity. This may have given the impression to some that crop protection products are not necessary. Now, however, the loss of the neonic seed dressings and the possible loss of chlorothalonil will hurt everyone unless we can agree a way forward. Losses such as these will leave a gap in sustainable crop production until researchers and plant breeders can provide alternative control strategies. We really need as a society to agree on ways of ‘minding the gaps’. Sadly, this wish is perhaps way too naïve in today’s fragmented climate of rule by pressure groups.

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Trust but verify

Posted on 19/01/2018 by Jim Orson

The heading for this blog is a quote from President Reagan made during the nuclear disarmament talks with the then USSR. It is something that should always be borne in mind when reading articles or listening to talks, even those by industry experts. There may be an ulterior motive in their slant on ‘the truth’ or they may not be thinking holistically.

I know that you want some examples. Let us start with The Soil Association and their campaign for healthier soils. They have fallen into the same trap as Michael Gove in quoting the loss of organic matter on the fen peats as typical. It is clear that either they have not seriously looked at the scientific literature or, having done so, have ignored it. This is because that over the last few decades soil organic matter may have actually increased on the very same long-term arable soils over which they express particular concern. The map below demonstrates this increase. The colour green indicates increasing soil organic matter between1978 and various time periods up to 2003 and the traditional arable areas are almost solidly green. The yellow colour shows static or slightly falling levels of organic matter and the red colouration represents a more significant fall in organic matter. You need to read the paper* to understand fully the basis on which this map is compiled. The fen peats of north Cambridgeshire are coloured red but their extent indicates how representative they are of the main areas of arable production in England and Wales. Interestingly, some of the areas losing organic matter most rapidly in both England and Wales are not farmed. The authors of the paper attribute this to climate change.


Why has organic matter most probably increased in long-term arable soils since 1978? There are two possible explanations. One is that straw burning generally stopped in the late 1980s and the other is that, because of the application of new technology and scientific understanding, we have been harvesting heavier crops since the mid-1980s. Heavier crops mean the return of more crop residues to the soil. In the long-term straw incorporation experiment at Morley, now funded by The Morley Agricultural Foundation, there has been a significant increase in soil organic matter since 1983 just from incorporating rather than removing straw. Mind you the soil organic matter is still between 1.7-1.8% where the straw has been incorporated but in some measurements, particularly soil aggregate stability, the benefit has been dramatic when compared to where the straw has been removed. It seems that the regular introduction of crop residues and a little bit of extra organic matter can go a long way.

I can hear you saying that The Soil Association is perhaps not an unbiased source of information. Their ‘peak oil’ and ‘peak phosphate’ campaigns, in which they predicted the fall of conventional systems, now seem an amusing aside. Also they are not thinking holistically about the wider environment because the extra manure use they promulgate has got to come from somewhere. I assume largely from extra cattle and sheep. This comes at a time when society is switching off eating meat and when there is a realisation of the profound effect of cattle and sheep on raising greenhouse gas production throughout the world.

Hence, I have another example. It is one that has been a ‘bit of a thing’ for me over the last few years. This is nitrogen advice for winter wheat. New ‘national advice’ has been all over the place for the last ten years or so. In my opinion this is because the advice has not been truly based on the evidence from field trials. Instead, the advice has been based on simplistic models that have been used to try to explain the results of field trials but when applied have not reliably reflected the nitrogen requirements of wheat, particularly at soil nitrogen indices of 2 and above. To some extent this has been overcome in the latest edition of RB 209 by introducing a yield correction.

However the yield correction is also a matter for debate. It was approximately 33 - 38 kg of applied N per extra tonne of wheat/ha in the AHDB Guidelines published in 2009 and then fell dramatically to an extra 20 kg/tonne in the new RB 209. This is still too high according to trials data.

Trying to make any sense of collated nitrogen trials can be soul destroying because of the lack of consistency, but there are exceptions. It has long been known that there is a robust relationship between yield at the optimum nitrogen dose and yield of the untreated control (also see my blog posted 7 January 2017). When a huge database of trials is analysed, including over seventy NIAB TAG trials from close to 60 locations, it shows that the optimum nitrogen dose increases yields by 3 t/ha when the treated plot yields are around 8 t/ha but by 5 t/ha when the treated plot yields are 15 t/ha. This means that the additional yield from nitrogen only increases by 2 t/ha when the optimum plot yield increases from 8 t/ha to 15 t/ha. This provides some verification of the NIAB TAG estimate that around 10 kg of applied N/ha is required for each extra tonne of plot yield above 8 t/ha. However, I have to point out that the differences between the NIAB TAG nitrogen recommendations for winter wheat and those in the new RB 209 are now far less than previously because of the other factors included in the calculations.

What really concerns me now is that some research organisations are gathering ‘facts’ via farmer forums on the internet. It has to be recognised that such ‘facts’ are a result of an inevitably biased survey and as such, the results should be treated as ‘interesting’ rather than true facts.

I have banged on for years in my blogs about seeking reliable practical guidelines from the correct interpretation of good scientific data. The message that should ring in our ears whenever we read or hear advice is “trust but verify”.


* If you have issues reading the paper, copy and paste the following link into your web broswer:

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