Combines roll into action as harvest season begins

A combine harvester in a barley field on the Elveden Estate

A combine harvester in a barley field on the Elveden Estate, near Thetford - Credit: Tim Rooney

The first combines have rolled into barley fields to launch East Anglia's 2021 harvest season.

It is a sight which marks the start of the busiest time of the year for the region's arable farmers, who are optimistic about their yield prospects.

One of the first farms to fire the harvest starting pistol was the 22,500-acre Elveden Estate near Thetford.

Farms director Andrew Francis said his first field of Flagon malting barley indicated that yields could be better than expected after less-than-perfect growing conditions earlier in the year.

"With it being wet and overcast recently, I thought we were in for quite a delayed harvest, but actually for us we are now on the front end of what I would call a normal year," he said.

"What has surprised me particularly is how quickly the Flagon has come ripe.

"I thought the miserable weather would slow it up, but it has come through quicker than we thought. We have gained quite a bit over the last few weeks where we have had the light rain and nothing too hot.

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"Generally, it looks like there is the potential for a lot of variability. Where it is good, it is very, very good.

"Overall I think it is better than when I sat here during a very wet, cold and miserable spring and early summer, thinking the yields were going to be pretty awful. They are certainly better than I expected at that point.

"If that first field is an indicator, I think we will be somewhere around our planned tonnage this year. Given everything the season has thrown at us in terms of the wettest December and January ever and the coldest early summer, to be somewhere close to plan will be a really good outcome."

This week's activity marks the start of a massive harvest operation for the estate, which will gather about 5,000 hectares of cereal crops this year, including 1,700ha on its own land, and the rest on contract farms.

Before the first combines left the sheds, there were two pre-harvest safety briefings in the soon-to-be-filled grain sheds, each including 15-20 harvest operators, technical staff and agronomists.

"The message was: 'Be seen, be safe, be able to come back tomorrow," said Mr Francis. 

"The statistics on farm deaths are terrible every year, so we as an industry are still not doing something right, and the same things keep happening.

"It might not be the most exciting topic to talk about, but the more we can do to keep everybody focused on health and safety, the better."

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