How key spring crop choices stack up for harvest 2023

Despite high input prices, good autumn conditions and the lure of high wheat prices at the time of drilling are likely to mean a larger area of winter cereals this season at the expense of spring cropping.

That is the view of John Nix Pocket Book author Graham Redman. “The winter wheat area is at least as high as last year and probably more,” he says.

“Winter barley is slightly higher, oilseed rape is up and oats are holding their own. We are looking at 3-4% of the wheat crop being spring varieties – about 60,000-70,000ha.”

See also: Three key spring cropping options in the North

For growers looking to save on nitrogen, pulses, with their nitrogen-fixing ability, are the obvious choice.

“As a group, the area will stay at least as high as last year and may creep up a bit, especially spring beans,” says Mr Redman.

About five to 10 years ago, growers tended to favour winter over spring oats, but spring oats are gaining ground, with winter and spring crops now equal.

“Spring oats are a flexible crop, which grow quickly and at a lower cost,” he says.

The AHDB Early Bird Survey predicts oats (winter and spring) to be down 9.5% on last year, likely due to the rise in other winter crops such as oilseed rape.

Looking at gross margins for combinable crops from the John Nix Pocket Book, (see “Spring crop gross margins 2022” and “Spring crop gross margins 2023”), returns are higher than in 2022.

“They are more or less retaining their rankings, but simply higher than last year,” says Mr Redman.

“Spring beans are doing a bit better comparatively because they do not need expensive nitrogen fertiliser. Fertiliser prices have gone up a lot this year.”

Maize waning

“Maize was a popular spring crop when there were incentives to install anaerobic digestion plants. However, there are fewer plants now, and with a general decline in the number of dairy herds, popularity is waning,” adds Mr Redman.

According to the AHDB’s Early Bird Survey, the 2023 spring barley area is forecast down 5.4% on the year, at 635,000ha. If realised, this would be the smallest area since 2012 (618,000ha).

The AHDB’s Farmbench results, which cover winter wheat, winter barley, oilseed rape and spring barley, predict that the effect of higher costs will bring all margins down dramatically in 2023, possibly into negative territory for spring barley.

“Until recently, the general upward price trend has largely kept ahead of gradual cost rises,” says Mark Topliss, AHDB lead analyst in farm economics .

“Now inflationary pressures on farm input costs will heavily affect net margins in 2023.”

However, Lee Harker, seed manager at ProCam, is optimistic about spring barley prospects.

“The spring crop market is unlikely to be as big as last year, given it’s been such a fantastic autumn for getting drilled up. Spring barley will be the main choice.

“The maltsters seem to be concerned about a malt shortage and are offering a £60-£65 premium over feed barley, so it is worth growing a malting variety which also yields well,” he adds.

“The spring barley area is likely to be 600,000-650,000ha – down on last year due to more land going into winter crops.”

Agronomist view

Despite the likelihood of continuing high input costs, Lincolnshire-based TAG consulting agronomist John Youles expects little change in his clients’ spring cropping plans.

“Many decisions have already been made, not just based on cost, but for rotational and cultural reasons. Many growers have already bought nitrogen.

“Some may cut back on inputs using home-saved seed, for example, but they are unlikely to change cropping plans.”

For farmers growing sugar beet and potatoes, Mr Youles sees the beet area increasing in response to the uplift in sugar price from £27/t for 2022 to £40/t for 2023.

“But potatoes will decline as it is proving difficult to make them pay, with high input costs and the cost of refrigeration due to high electricity prices.”

Dry springs

Every year is different, but many will feel like the spring rainfall is settling into a pattern of a dry March, April and early May, says Jock Willmott, consultant at Ceres Rural.

“For some, this dry period is influencing what proportion and type of spring crops will be grown in 2023.

“The clear winner on price alone is likely to be sugar beet – the revised price has meant British Sugar has hit its target area for the 2023 crop,” he explains.

“Confidence in the availability of irrigation water is another key factor that is influencing cropping decisions on lighter land.”

Ceres Rural’s records show spring barley is the most consistent spring cereal, with its early growth habit helping it cover the ground and make the most of early season moisture before any drought ensues, says Mr Willmott.

“The least consistent spring-planted performers have been wheat and beans – both can be affected by dry conditions and high temperatures.

“Peas appear less affected than beans over recent springs and are an alternative where they fit. Similarly, spring oats seem to be less affected by dry conditions than wheat.”

However, there is good demand for beans from animal feed companies, particularly those trying to substitute soya with beans to reduce their carbon footprint, says Roger Vickers, chief executive at the Processors and Growers Research Organisation.

“There is also healthy demand for human consumption, particularly from farms growing north of the Humber, where it is cooler and there is less of a problem with bruchid beetle.”

Seed shortage

But there could be some issues with spring bean seed availability. “It was so hot and dry at harvest that it has been a struggle to process seed,” says ProCam’s Mr Harker.

“There could also be germination issues. The seed supply trade must work to a minimum germination rate of 80%, but is seeking a derogation which, if granted, will allow a germination rate of 75%.

“If there isn’t enough seed it could affect cropping decisions,” he warns. “Some farmers will save their own, but it’s important to get it tested for stem weevil and ascita.”

With good prices on offer for spring cereals, farmers may not want to take the risk of growing spring beans, he says. “They can be late to harvest, leading to delays in drilling the following crop.”

With so much drilling done in autumn, niche spring crops are having to fight hard for market share, says Nigel Padbury at Premium Crops.

“For those looking at low-input crops, canary seed contracts are available at a minimum price option of £550/t.

“Some linseed varieties have a minimum price of £525/t plus 1% of the contract price for every percentage point above 38% oil.”

Sugar beet aside, the value of most other combinable spring crops still relates to the price for feed wheat, meaning the gross margin ranking of each remains virtually unchanged, says Ceres’ Mr Willmott. 

“It’s keeping with the crops that are consistent performers and offer more than stewardship alternatives that is still driving rotations.

“Most growers will have seed supplies planned and will be unlikely to alter plans drastically to favour one crop over another just based on nitrogen price.

“There are bigger factors at play, like keeping the rotation functioning sustainably and balancing the risks of potentially another dry spring.”

Spring crop gross margins 2023


Spring wheat

Spring barley

Spring beans

Spring oats

Output (£)





Variable costs (£)





Gross margin (£)










Full economic cost of production by crop for the middle 50% of arable farms on Farmbench (£/ha)


Five-year average

2022 (estimate)

2023 (forecast)

Spring oats




Spring beans




Spring wheat




Spring barley




Source: AHDB