Forget red sky at night. Scientists have found a way to predict the quality of the United Kingdom's wheat crop six months in advance by studying variations in the North Atlantic climate.
The discovery will help beleaguered British farmers decide how best to manage their crop -whether to lavish it with fertilisers and fungicides if the season will favour bread-quality wheat, or save the cost if the crop will end up good only for animal feed.
Peter Kettlewell, reader in crop physiology at Harper Adams University College in Newport, Shropshire, gave his first forecast based on the technique last week -this year, the national average crop harvested in August is unlikely to meet bread-makers' specifications, and farmers would be better off not wasting thousands of pounds on agrochemicals.
"Until now, wheat growers have just had to take potluck on each season as it comes," Dr Kettlewell said.
The technique, described in the Journal of Cereal Science , is the first to link European crop success with winter climate patterns. Similar connections with El Ni$o have already been exploited in Australia and Africa.
Dr Kettlewell found that variations in the UK's national grain quality survey tied in with winter differences of atmospheric pressure between Iceland and the Azores, a climate pattern known as the North Atlantic oscillation (NAO).
While localised summer weather patterns will affect individual grain qualities, the technique effectively forecasts overall climatic effects caused by the winter NAO that will influence the crop's growth. Dr Kettlewell's group has even found hints that the impact of particular crop diseases might be affected by the NAO.
John Howie, cereals product manager with leading UK wheat breeder PBI-C, said: "This gives growers the sort of security they really need in a modern market in which margins are increasingly tight and the difference between success and failure is ever narrower."