Warm weather boosts UK crops, but Europe suffers on droughts

Confounding the old saying, March both came in like a lamb and went out in similar fashion leaving behind new records as the warmest and driest March for more than half a century.

Weather records at the former Scottish Crop Research station at Invergowrie – now part of the James Hutton Institute – only started in 1954, so last month’s figures may be the best ever.

Rainfall in the 31 days of March totalled 5.1 millimetres, just 10 per cent of the average figure for the past 30 years. The total rainfall for the first three months of the year was 59.4mm, one-third of the 30-year average, and this makes 2012 the third-driest year – with only 1959 and 1973 being slightly drier.

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The previous highest March temperature of 18.6ºC recorded in 1965 at Invergowrie was smashed no less than six times this year, with the monthly mean air maximum temperature ending up at 14ºC.

Arable farmers have made the most of the weather with the Home Grown Cereals Authority yesterday estimating that 80 per cent of the 2012 spring barley crop has already been drilled; well above the 50 per cent normal for the end of March.

Although, there are water shortages and hose pipe bans in the south and east of England, the HGCA said the dry weather was not affecting crop growth at this stage, but “regular rain will be required throughout the season to maintain potential”.

Commenting on the state of winter wheat crops, the HGCA reckons they are “well tillered and many are quite lush”, while winter oilseed rape crops are “growing rapidly”.

However, the position in Europe is already worrying farming leaders with Ian Backhouse, chairman of the cereals working party on the lobby organisation Copa-Cogeca, saying: “In southern Europe, the drought is severe and only 30 per cent of the European Union cereals area is likely to be cultivated.”

Backhouse called on the European Commission to introduce measures to help growers and help maintain the production capacity of the EU.

“Crops are also suffering from frost kill, causing farmers to plan to re-sow their areas, which will increase their costs further,” he said. “Unfortunately, due to the lack of seeds available, farmers will not be in position to plant what the market needs.

“The exemption for farmers to use farm-saved seed in order to alleviate the lack of commercialised seed will help”.

It is too early for Copa-Cogeca to alter its estimates of cereal production for this year’s harvest, although this could “easily change”. The estimates for oilseed production have already being lowered by 3.3 per cent to 28.122 million tonnes, continuing the downward trend of the past two years.

With frost damage in Poland, Germany and eastern France affecting the rapeseed crop and Spain, Portugal, France warning of severe drought, the estimates are expected to be cut further.