Quality concerns flare up as EU wheat harvest gathers pace

Worries about the quality of this year’s western European wheat crop are emerging, as harvest activity moves to a key growing belt in top producer France and gets underway in Germany.

Grain experts are painting a mixed picture of projections with French production expected to at least match last year and larger harvests anticipated in Germany and Spain.

However, Britain’s crop is set to be the weakest in more than a decade, while Italian output is also seen declining.

Local reports from earlier harvested zones along France’s Atlantic coast pointed to some protein levels below 11 per cent, which is often a minimum level for milling wheat exports.

“This year it’s the protein content that appears to be the issue,” Pierre-Antoine Allard of consultancy Agritel said. “The question is whether the northern third of France is going to get good protein.”

Violent storms in the past week had also raised concerns about crop damage and worsening quality for wheat yet to be cut, although analysts said rain may also have benefited some plants that matured very quickly during an early July hot spell.

Agritel projects a 2013 French harvest of 35.6 million tonnes, unchanged from last season, while analysts Strategie Grains sees a slightly higher 36.65 million. The farm ministry and farm office FranceAgriMer each forecast 35.9 million tonnes.

In the EU’s second largest producer Germany, sunshine and high temperatures may have pushed some wheat to ripeness faster than expected, creating concerns about quality. But overall volumes are expected to be larger than last year.

There has been some early wheat cutting but a more widespread start to harvesting is expected over the weekend, one analyst said.

“Basically the overall picture remains good but there is regional concern about crop quality following very high temperatures over the weekend and in the last week. It is still not clear what the impact of the very hot weather was, but I think it should not be over-dramatized.”

Germany sweltered under sunshine and temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius in many regions over the weekend. These have now dropped to just over 20 degrees but are forecast to rise again to around 30 from Thursday to Friday.

Germany will harvest 24.24 million tonnes of wheat in 2013, up from the 22.33 million tonnes harvested in 2012, grain trader Toepfer International forecast earlier this month.

BRITISH LOSSES

In Britain, the harvest is not expected to get underway until next week with production seen down sharply. The planting of crops last autumn was wrecked by wet weather.

The harvest area is expected to drop 19 per cent this year to 1.61 million hectares, the Home-Grown Cereals Authority said last week, issuing results of a planting survey.

“We’re looking at about 11.7 (million tonnes) based on the (lower) area and yields slightly down on an average year,” analyst Leo von Kameke of ODA UK said, adding the quality of the crop had yet to be determined.

Italy, a major grain importer in Europe, has been plagued by a heatwave and torrential storms, which are likely to affect this year’s production.

“It’s difficult to quantify the weather’s impact on harvests at this point, but there will definitely be losses in production compared to forecasts given by the ministry,” said Rolando Manfredini, a crop analyst at Coldiretti.

“The north of the country was most hit, although the centre has also been impacted, but at a much lower scale.”

The agriculture ministry has forecast output of soft wheat this year at 2.999 million tonnes, down from 3.41 million tonnes the previous year, while durum wheat, used in making pasta, was estimated at 3.71 million tonnes, down from 4.18 million.

Spanish farmers’ association COAG estimates this year’s wheat crop at 8 million tonnes, with 7 million tonnes of soft wheat and 1 million of durum.

Last year’s wheat crop was 5.1 million, according to the International Grains Council.

“In general, this year’s harvest is looking good and the qualities are good, especially when compared with last year,” COAG crop specialist Laura Piedra said.

“We’ve had a weekend of hail a few weeks ago, which has affected some cultivations in the north of the country, but farmers said only small parts of their crops had been hit, so we don’t expect the damage to be big.”

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