Tag Archives: wheat

Effect on corn yields of the 2016 winter flood

High annual rainfall in recent decades causing problems for cereal production; timing of rainfall more important than yearly total; much greater yield drop caused by the wet harvest of 2012 than the winter floods of 2016. [An article in the series ‘Winter flood’.]

The last few decades have experienced several of the highest rainfall years since reliable records began in 1910. The effects of perhaps too much water on long term trends in crop yield are being examined and will be reported elsewhere.  Yet contrasting years tell us already that problems are not caused by the amount of rainfall in a year, but by the timing of that rainfall.


The image above looks south over the Carse of Gowrie in early January 2016, the green cereal (corn) fields and the brown stubble were completely waterlogged, the landscape immersed in dense cloud, hardly any light for photosynthesis in the middle afternoon. (No attempt to brighten the image – this was how it looked.)

Many autumn-sown corn fields grew yellow with the persistent wet, dead patches within them. Yet the final estimates of yield for the harvest years 2016, released in December 2016, give the first indication that the severe flooding the previous winter caused a much smaller loss of yield than the wet harvest of 2012.


Fig. 1. Grain yield, average for Scotland, for wheat, spring barley and oilseed rape between 2000 and 2016: the first two standardised to 14% water content, the latter to 9%; horizontal lines show the average.

The trace in yield from 2000 (Fig. 1) shows a drop in 2002 for the two cereal crops, then a period of stability up to 2011 followed by a large fall in 2012. Yield partly recovered in 2013, rose well above the average in 2014 and 2015, then dropped back in 2016.

The same data are shown in Fig. 2 where yield of each crop is expressed as a percentage of the average for the whole period (100% line). The large depression in 2012 and 2013 is shown by all three crops as is the recovery and the later drop in 2016. The 2012 depression caused economic losses, but perhaps more important, the large variation between years shows how sensitive modern arable farming is to these slight variations in the weather.


Fig. 2. Grain yield from Fig. 1 presented as a percentage of the average for the period, for wheat (red), spring barley (green) and oilseed rape (blue).

It’s not the total rainfall

The annual  rainfall exceeded 1300 mm several times during the period of stable yield between 2003 and 2011, but then the rain generally peaked in the winter. Only about one third of the corn is in the ground at that time (mainly winter wheat, winter barley and winter oat) – the larger area destined for spring-sown barley is still unplanted.

So provided the winter crops are not submerged for more than a few days at a time, they recover and grow to harvest. This happened during the stable phase, for example in 2008 and 2009 when annual rainfall was above 1300 mm.

Why was 2012 yield so poor?

The difference in 2012 and to some degree in 2002 was that rainfall was much higher in summer before and during harvest. In fact, annual rainfall in 2012, at 1287 mm, was lower than that during several years between 2003 and 2011.

It was the wet weather in late summer and autumn of 2012 that caused major loss of yield in the harvest of that year (mostly August to late September). The damage to the ground and to the winter crops just sown or about to be also caused a depression of yield in the next harvest in late summer 2013.

How did 2016 recover?

In contrast, the high rainfall in the winter of 2015/16 set records: in East Scotland December 2015 had the highest rainfall at 272 mm since records began in 1910, then January 2016 also broke all previous records with 266 mm.  The result was prolonged waterlogging of fields and severe flooding of some river floodplains, and as stated above, a yellowing of leaf in many winter cereal fields.

Then conditions changed – the spring and summer months had less than average rain, and more than average sun, allowing soils to dry and crops to bulk, such that they yielded at or not much below the the average in Fig. 2.


The image above looks north across the Isla floodplain in Strathmore, in dense cloud just before nightfall, the field in the foreground cultivated, sludging and eroding into the river-water. (No attempt to brighten the image.)


The 2015/16 cropping season was testament to the resilience of the crop varieties and their agronomic management to overcome what was unusual weather by our standards. There’s also evidence that farming adapted, perhaps learning from the 2012 floods to shift its cropping patterns and perhaps the fields in which its most profitable crops were placed.

Winter wheat maintained its area between 2015 and 2016, indicating that few fields already sown with this crop had failed by February 2016 to the extent that they had to be resown in March or April with another crop.

But the surprise was the greater production of oats despite the bad winter. The area sown with oat (mainly spring 2016) increased a little, but the yield per unit area increased from 5.92 to a record 6.44 t/ha (tonnes per hectare) and the total production of oat increased by a factor of 1.32, also to a record for recent decades.

So what was going on? The reasons why oats did so well are not clear at present.

Signs of things to come?

The capacity of grain yield to recover from the late summer rain of 2012 and adapt to the winter floods of 2016 shows the soil and crops have kept a certain resilience during this bout of record rain-years.

But the alarming feature of the traces in Fig. 1 and Fig. 2 is the large variation between years caused by what were – compared to weather patterns elsewhere – fairly small shifts in the distribution of rainfall through the year.

The longer term effects of the present rise in annual rainfall are not yet understood. It will be not easy to distinguish the effects of rainfall from the higher temperatures over the same period – and the lower solar income in cloudy summers

More on this in future articles …

Sources, references

Links on this site

Winter flood – pages on the flooding effect of the high rainfall in recent years.

Winter flood …. continued  – commentary on the 2012 yield depression

The late autumn floods of 2012 – after the bad harvest


Rainfall since 1910 for UK and regions. Annual and monthly totals are available from 1910 at the Met Office pages for UK and Regional Series. At the Download site for UK and regional datasets scroll down to ‘Year ordered statistics’ and click the download link for ‘Scotland E – Rainfall’.

Winter rainfall 2015/2016. The following Met Office web article gives a summary, with maps, videos and data, of the very wet November to January: Further rainfall and flooding across north of the UK. http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/climate/uk/interesting/december2015_further Jan 27 2016

Cereal and oilseed yields

Scottish Government. Final estimate of cereal and oilseed rape harvest 2016. Downloads are available as pdf and excel files. In the excel download, Tables 2 and 3 give cereal and oilseed rape areas, yield per hectare and total production from 1997 to 2016.

Yields, take from government statistics, are given in tonnes per hectare, t/ha, standardised to a water content of 14% for the cereals (corn) and 9% for the oilseed. Standardising is needed because the grain might be a bit drier in some harvests and a bit wetter in others.

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Winter flood … continued

The floods this past winter of 2015/16 were spectacular, lakes appearing where there were fields and swollen rivers coursing through the landscape. The soil was saturated for months and crops were damaged.

It was difficult to predict at the time the loss of grain yield at harvest. If a winter crop fails, farmers may switch to another crop such as the hardier oat. Or they may sow oat in spring instead of spring barley; or even not sow a grain crop at all. Only the ‘good’ crops might appear in the census. The trouble caused by the flooding might appear less than it was.

The first reliable indication is after harvest when the first estimates of the year’s yield are tabled. In 2016, the first estimates were published on 6 October and they suggested a smaller drop in yield than perhaps expected, smaller than the one following the floods in 2012.  But we’ll wait until the final estimates are out in December 2016 before making final comparisons with that year.


Here for reference (Figure 1) is a graph of national average yields each year from 2000 for the main grain crops, spring barley and winter wheat. In Figure 1, yield in units of tonnes per hectare  (weight of grain per hectare of land, a hectare being 100×100 m) is shown in comparison with the average over the period represented by the dashed lines. Winter wheat yields more than spring barley, but the drop in 2012 is clear for both.


In Figure 2, the yields are shown as a percentage of the average (the heavier line at ‘0’ on the vertical axis). Both crops go up about the same and down about the same each year, but the drop in 2012 was bigger than anything like this in the last two decades. The wet cloudy year of 2002 also showed a fall in yield. Compare these with high yield of 2014 when the warm, sunny summer allowed the grain to bulk to a record for recent times.

Despite all the advances in machinery and crop varieties, farming in the north east Atlantic croplands is still very much at the mercy of the weather. Maintaining soil is good condition will be essential for future yields.

Further information and photographs of the 2012 floods on the Living Field web site at The late autumn floods of 2012.


First Estimate of the Cereal and Oilseed Rape Harvest 2016. Scottish Government. Published 6 October 2016. Link to a downloadable PDF file.



Great quantities of aquavitae II

The store-house of Foulis; more from the Andrew Wight on his journey north of the Cromarty Firth in 1781; improvement and innovation in 1700s farming; feeding oxen and horse; ‘a man of enterprising and comprehensive genius’; bere and barley.

In ‘Great quantities of aquavitae‘, the farmer-traveller Andrew Wight commented in 1781 on the denizens of Ferintosh, on the Black Isle,  who “utterly neglecting their land, which is in a worse state than for many miles around” preferred to spend their time distilling bere (barley) malt than tending soil and growing crops.

Among places supplying grain to the Ferintosh whisky trade in the 1780s was (he reported) the farmland of Foulis (also spelled Fowlis), on the opposite, northern, side of the Cromarty Firth. Mr Wight rode his horse the long way round, but now Foulis is only a few minutes drive from Ferintosh over the bridge.


The Store-House of Foulis

Andrew Wight did not write about the girnal or store-house at Foulis Ferry Point. It was built 1740, that is 40 years before he passed by on his journey north from Inverness  (and that’s about 275 years before now). It was built to store grain before it was shipped off to market or paid to people in kind for work or favours.

The grain was grown by the estate or paid as rent by the tenants of the estate. They would grow grain on a farm or allotment and pay some to the landowner. Beaton (1986) reports accounts that the total barley received at the Store-House of Foulis in 1784 came to to 169 bolls two firlots. Example of payments ranged from 98 bolls one firlot from the tenant of Mains of Foulis to two bolls from a slater.

The Store-House of Foulis (map reference NH 599636) today has been well restored, with its fine slate roof and well harled walls (images above). Though sometimes called Foulis Ferry Point, the ferry ceased to operate in the 1930s. New buildings have grown around the site housing a visitor centre, restaurant and shops.

There area is rich in these store-houses or girnals as they were called, along the Cromarty Firth and up to Portmahomak. Beaton (1986) gives a map of locations.

Andrew Wight’s comments on the area

Mr Wight (IV.I p 241 onwards) writes about the crops, the farm animals, the owners, the improvers, the tenants and the peasants. Here are some excerpts from his journey along the north side of the Cromarty Firth from Fowlis eastward.

Of Fowlis (Page 233), he regales against the old practices – “having a baulk between every ridge, upon which were heaped the stones removed from the ridges; the soil was taken off every third ridge, in order to ameliorate the two adjacent ridges; and the crops alternately oats and bere; and to this bad practice was added the worst ploughing that can be conceived.” But after the land was improved by the then owner, he reports (page 235) a wheat yield of ten bolls per acre.

And on the same estate, Robert Hall, the farm manager of Fowlis  ‘introduced a crop, rare in Scotland and an absolute novelty in the north, which is carrot. (..) The farm-horses are fed on carrots instead of corn; and they are always in good condition.”

I rejoice to see six yoke of oxen

At Novar he remarks on the poor inherent quality of the soil, which is more than compensated by the desire of the estate to effect improvement to a degree that today would be thought of as ecological engineering.

He notes “Oxen only are employed both in cart and plough. I rejoiced to see six yoke of oxen in six carts, pulling along great loads of stones, perfectly tractable and obedient to the driver. They are all in fine order, and full of spirit. They begin labour at five in the morning, and continue till nine. They are then put upon good pasture, or fed with cut clover, till two; when a bell is wrung, and all are ready in an instant for labouring till six in the afternoon.’

At Invergordon, he comments on seven crops: “wheat on this strong land was very good; barley after turnip excellent; beans and peas are never neglected in the rotation; oats in their turn make a fine crop; the old pasture grass excels.”


Agriculture, manufactures and commerce, the pillars that support the nation

Several pages are devoted to the contribution of George Ross of Cromarty, MP a man of “enterprising and comprehensive genius”.  He started a hemp manufacturing company employing many people and exporting coarse cloth to London and then a brewery for  strong ale and porter, much of it “exported to Inverness and other places by sea-carriage”.

On Ross’s  agriculture: “it is wonderful to see barren heath converted into fertile cornfields; clover and other grasses rising luxuriantly, where formerly not a blade of grass was to be seen; horse-hoed turnip, and potatoes, growing on land lately a bog; ….. hay, not known here formerly, is now the ordinary food of horses and cows”. He also cures and exports pork:  “… he carried me to a very large inclosure of red clover, where there were 200 hogs of the great Hampshire kind feeding luxuriously.”

Ross works on a plan for improving the harbour and entertains “sanguine hopes that government will one day establish a dry dock near the harbour for repairing ships of war in their northern expeditions.”

Ed: Writing in 1810 after Ross’s death, Mackenzie (1810) states that the hemp trade was “now in a flourishing state. From (the year beginning) 5 January 1807, there were imported 185 tons of hemp; and about 10,000 piece of bagging were sent to London”.  Ross was not so far off in his hopes for ship repair – Mackenzie refers to a ship being built there in 1810, and today there are deep anchorage and rig maintenance.

Eight fields, eight crops in sequence

Later on page 257, Wight comments on Mr Forsyth of Cromarty who manages a small farm divided into eight fields, and cropped as follows: “First potatoes, horse and hand hoed, with dung; second, barley; third, clover; fourth, wheat; fifth, peas; sixth, oats or barley, with grass seeds; seventh, hay; eighth pasture. … in this way ‘kept in excellent order, with the advantage of dung from the village”.

Throughout his journeys,  Andrew Wight speaks his mind, always ready to praise good farming and condemn poor practice. (You can sense these journeys are more than a job.) And while he accepts the social divides of the time – he was commissioned by the wealthy – notably between the landed gentry and their peasants,  he condemns those of the former who ignore, ill treat or exploit and praises those who support and encourage the people to improve their lot by agriculture, manufactures and commerce.

Other points to note are that legume crops (fixing nitrogen from the air) were common in crop rotations  and that bere and barley are both mentioned but no clear distinction is made between them (see link to the Bere line below).


Beaton, E. (1986) Late seventeenth and eighteenth century estate girnals in Easter-Ross and South-east Sutherland’, In: Baldwin, J R, Firthlands of Ross and Sutherland. Edinburgh, pages 133-152. Available online: http://ssns.org.uk/resources/Documents/Books/Ross_1986/09_Beaton_Ross_1986_pp_133-152.pdf

Mackenzie, G S. 1810. General view of agriculture of the counties of Ross and Cromarty. London: Phillips.

Wight, A. 1778-1784. Present State of Husbandry in Scotland. Exracted from Reports made to the Commissioners of the Annexed Estates, and published by their authority. Edinburgh: William Creesh. Vol IV part I. (See Great Quantities of aquavitae for further reference and web links).

More on the Foulis girnal

Canmore web site. Foulis Ferry, Granary.  https://canmore.org.uk/site/12905/foulis-ferry-granary Notes on history with references.

Am Baile web site: Foulis Ferry http://www.ambaile.org.uk/detail/en/20423/1/EN20423-foulis-ferry-near-evanton.htm


Those in the upper set were taken of the Foulis Store-house and its surrounds on a visit in August 2016.

There were no ‘yoke of oxen’ around Foulis and Novar in 2016,  so the Living Field acknowledges with thanks use of photographs from Burma (Myanmar) by gk-images, taken February 2014 (permission granted by the handler to take the photographs). The quotes below the images come from Wight’s text of 1784, and apply well to this magnificent animal).

Links to posts on this site

More from Andrew Wight on his travels in this region: Great quantities of Aquavitae and Great quantities of Aquavitae II.

The distinction between barley and bere: The bere line – rhymes with hairline and Landrace 1 – bere.

Maps of potato. legumes and vegetables in the region in the twenty-tens (and the relevance of this land over the last 2000 years?): Can we grow more vegetables?

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Corn grain bread bannocks

A Living Field exhibit at Open Farm Sunday this year on 7 June 2015 10 am to 4 pm at the James Hutton Institute, Invergowrie, Dundee.


Plant to plate: see and touch corn (cereal) plants, ancient and modern; have a go at threshing; try hand-grinding grain; see bread, biscuits and bannocks made from bere (an old Scottish barley landrace), rye, spelt and oat.

Images above show (top) ripening ‘ears’ of emmer wheat grown in the Living Field garden, a bag of oat grain and the Living Field’s rotary quern for grinding grain into meal

Contact: gillian.banks@hutton.ac.uk.



What are landraces?

Before modern genetics and breeding, before the world’s great stores of genetic resources were built and before the purity of crop varieties could be certified using DNA tests, most crops were kept as landraces.

Seed of wheat, oat, barley, beans and all the other crops was usually highly variable, the individuals genetically different. When sown in a field in a year, those individuals that survived and yielded the most were those best fitted to the conditions. These fitter plants contributed more to the harvested seed than their less fit neighbours. Samples of seed were kept and then sown the next season. Again, plants that were most fitted survived and reproduced.

Gradually the nature of the seed changed by this repeated selection to track the local environment and growing conditions. This would have happened as the early cereals, legumes, fibres and oils were carried westwards and northwards from their Asian centres of origin to the margins of the Atlantic. Landraces evolved to cope with low soil fertility, a cold wet winter and the local pests, and would have split into recognisable types, known to belong to an area of land or method of farming.

But with little warning, a crop could be wiped out by extreme events, the farmers left with just a fragment, or none, of the seed they had nurtured for years, decades even. Maintaining a landrace was no easy matter. Many would have disappeared, others changed to adapt to new conditions.

Landraces are not a thing of the past. They are common in Africa and large parts of Asia today. Under-used  and under-researched crops such as bambara Vigna subterranea exist mostly as landraces, each typical of a region and maintained by seed saved from one year to the next.

Not so long ago in our Islands, crops were maintained as landraces, and the practice persists (see below), though most crops are now sown from bags of named varieties, each bought from a seed supplier, certified and uniform and generally high yielding.

More on this web site: Landrace 1 – bere

The Lawson list of 1852

The Synopsis of Vegetable Products of Scotland, prepared by the Edinburgh seedsmen Peter Lawson and Son in 1852 consists largely of named ‘types’ of cereals, legumes, fibres, fruit and all the other crops, but the types are not what would be considered true varieties today. Among the wheats, there were 142 types recorded, the barleys 42 and the oats 53 – each named with usually some note on their origin.

Some of the types on the list were recently imported, for instance, from the Baltic, from France, from the low countries, from England. But many of the notes suggest types were found and maintained by individual farmers in specific regions.

So there  is the Hopetoun wheat “the produce of  single ear of an unusual size … discovered in 1832, on Mr Reid’s farm of Drem, East Lothian … [which was passed through several farming hands and] … is now pretty widely distributed amongst growers ….”.

Or the St Madoes barley “discovered, in 1838, by the Rev. Mr. Noble of St Madoes, in a field of the Dunlop [another type of barley]; and is evidently of a very different kind … a recommendation in damp climates …” .

And then Dyock’s Early oat ” originally raised by a Mr Dyock, near Aberdeen, and has been grown in the vicinity of Brechin …. it is hardy, early, very prolific, and exceedingly well adapted for the higher corn lands”.

Most of those old cereal types are no longer with us, lost in the march  towards modern varietal uniformity, but what the Lawson list shows clearly is the vigour and intent of farmers working 100-200 years ago in their search for better crop seed, better for their region and purposes, better adapted to their conditions; and then the bulking and trialling of a new type over a few seasons, and the passing on of the good material to others.

Are there landraces still?

A few farmers save seed – it avoids buying it every year. (Possibly many more save it than would admit!) Yet not many landraces remain here – the traditional barley, bere, was recorded in the Lawson list as a four-row type, “chiefly grown in the Highlands of Scotland and in the lowlands on exposed inferior light soils”. Bere remains with us in a few places, notably Orkney.

There are also landraces of wheat and rye in certain collections and black oat must still persist mainly as a landrace.

The Living Field grows bere, and landraces of wheat, rye and black oat every year to compare them with modern varieties.  We save seed at the end of the year, keep it safe over the winter and sow it as a new crop next spring. All four types germinate well and grow fast.  They are different from their modern relatives, often taller, rangier, weedier.

Articles on the cereal landraces will appear on the Living Field web site in the coming weeks.


Lawson P and Son. 1982. Synopsis of the Vegetable Products of Scotland. Edinburgh: private press of Peter Lawson and Son.

Author/contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk