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Wheat - farming and production

Wheat is a grass with a very swollen grain that when ground, produces a flour that is particularly suitable for the production of bread and biscuits. It is the world's most important crop.

emmer wheat, staple of the Roman army Today's wheat crops can trace their origin back over 10,000 years to the einkorn and emmer wheats that grew wild in the middle east. The domestication of these varieties for use in agriculture and their subsequent arrival in the UK 6,000 years ago, displaced hunter gathering as a way of life. This allowed the development of larger more formally organised communities where agricultural production supported a part of the population no longer directly involved in the production of food. The wheats that farmers grow today look similar but have been repeatedly selected for higher yields and better disease resistance. In Roman times wheat could yield three tonnes to each hectare, now eight tonnes is normal.

field of wheat ready for harvest

Wheat is a versatile plant that can be sown in either the autumn or the spring, both sowing times being harvested in August. In the UK autumn sowing dominates. This is because the UK's temperate climate allows the plant to grow through the winter and produce a higher yield than a spring sown alternative. In the UK the climate has always been well suited to the production of wheat and as much as 1,000 years before the Romans arrived, farmers were exporting surplus grain to Europe. Today wheat is grown on about 2,000,000 hectares with a value of about £1.2 billion.

Farmers have traditionally grown wheats for a number of different markets.

Hard wheats (high protein and starchy gluten) are sold for the production of bread. Soft wheats (low protein and weak gluten) are sold for biscuits and other general flour uses while lower quality wheats are used in animal feed rations.

A small area of wheat each year is grown as a seed crop and used for the following crop.

From the Autumn of 2007 a new market emerged as Cargill switched production from maize to wheat at its starch and glucose manufacturing plant in Trafford Park, Manchester. Around 750,000 tonnes of wheat will be sourced to supply the plant and the glucose and starch extracted will be used in confectionery, soft drinks, alcoholic drinks and convenience foods. And from 2009, wheat in the UK will have an additional market as a feedstock for use in UK produced bioethanol.

Harvest is under way Wheat is a easy crop to harvest as it stands erect and the grain can be thrashed from the ear to provide a clean sample free from straw and weeds. In the UK harvest starts in early august in the south of england but can be up to a month later in scotland. Nowadays the straw has relatively little value and it is mostly chopped up and spread by the combine. In the past the straw would have been carefully saved for use in thatching and as bedding or feed for animals.

grain store The UK currently produces around 15 million tonnes of wheat each year and around 25% of this is exported to countries around the world. About 40% of the national crop is used in animal feed rations going to chickens, cows and pigs. The balance of the crop is used for human consumption with wheat being used in literally thousands of products and responsible for the daily production of 10 million loaves of bread.

wheat diagram Each grain of wheat contains three main parts: the bran, endosperm and germ. Depending on how the wheat is milled, various types of flour will be produced. Wholemeal flour consists of the entire grain, brown flour has some of the bran and germ removed, while white flour consists of the endosperm almost exclusively. Besides the obvious use of flour in the production of bread, flour is also used in the production of biscuits and extensively in all kinds of processed foods. A careful look at the constituents of many products on the supermarket shelf will list wheat flour or indeed whole wheat grains as is the case with some muesli. Wheat is a particularly useful crop in terms of human nutrition as it contains good levels of protein and carbohydrate.

Further readingFurther reading for Wheat - Production cycle >>

Statistics for Wheat

Production area wheat
(000 hectares)
2086 1635 1996 1837 1990 1867 1833 1830 2080 1775 1939
Production volume wheat
(000 tonnes)
16704 11580 15973 14288 15473 14863 14735 13221 17227 14076 14878
Wheat value incl area payments
(£ millions)
1578 1227 1480 1572 1664 1001 1158 1426 2027 1550 1683
Yield - wheat
(tonnes / hectare)
8.0 7.1 8.0 7.8 7.8 8.0 8.0 7.2 8.3 7.9 7.7
Price milling wheat
(£ / tonne)
74 82 71 76 87 76 77 109 152 122 122
Price feed wheat
(£ / tonne)
65 75 63 68 77 67 72 99 127 108 113
Total new supply wheat
(000 tonnes)
14209 11259 15717 11763 14006 13572 13623 12547 15709 12932 12683
Total domestic use wheat
(000 tonnes)
13128 13385 13133 13279 13437 13700 13559 13475 13525 13736 14052
Wheat production as % UK use
118 103 102 121 110 110 108 105 110 109 117

June Census statistics for Wheat

706,012 694,710 738,205 536,510 673,984 950,705 803,990 961,639 1,405,723 1,885,300 1,956,759

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