Consistent yield after this summer’s drought, coupled with vigorous black-grass suppression, has convinced one Suffolk barley grower he is right to be growing a hybrid.
For Suffolk farmer, Ben Larter, winter barley plays a pivotal role in rotations.
Not only does it provide an early entry for half his winter oilseed rape crop, the other half being planted after winter wheat, it also allows outdoor pigs that the business hosts to be brought onto the land early. Plus, winter barley can be more profitable than his second wheat.
Furthermore, by growing a modern hybrid, he has found he not only gets better black-grass suppression than with a conventional barley, but can also extract a much more consistent yield from the crop. The latter has become particularly apparent during the extreme weather conditions of the last couple of years.
“Originally, we only looked at growing a small area of a hybrid four years ago for competition against black-grass,” explains Mr Larter, who farms 400ha under a farm business tenancy plus 800ha contract-farmed at Plant Larter Farms, Framlingham, Woodbridge.
With a wide range of soil types, his 1,500ha of arable land fits in multiple rotations. Winter crops include wheat, barley, oilseed rape and beans. Spring crops are sugar beet, spring barley and peas.
“The hybrid worked well,” Mr Larter says. “So we upped its area to half our winter barley crop and it’s been working well ever since.
“It seems to outcompete black-grass once it gets going in late February or early March. While the hybrids are putting the black-grass under pressure, blocking the sun out more and competing for moisture and nutrients, the conventionals come a week or so behind, so the black-grass seems to grow with the crop.”
Initially trying 20ha of the hybrid variety Hyvido Volume, this was increased to 30ha the following autumn, before switching to the newer hybrid, Hyvido Bazooka – growing 70ha last season and 100ha for harvest 2018, equivalent to about 90 per cent of the business’s winter barley area.
But it has been the last two extreme years of weather that have really underlined the hybrid’s yield consistency, acknowledges Mr Larter, with 2017 beginning dry and ending wet, and 2018 the opposite, culminating in summer drought.
“We noticed in the dry spring of 2017 on marginal land that the hybrid was a bit more drought-hardy than the conventional. The conventional lost tillers, whereas the hybrid maintained them, and it definitely maintained biomass and yield better, which was confirmed at harvest. There were also no issues with specific weight from the six-row hybrid,” he adds.
While the hybrid yielded consistently around 10t/ha across light and heavy soils, the conventional two-row feed variety reached this only on heavy land, recalls Mr Larter. Elsewhere, it produced 7.5t/ha.
Consequently, more of the hybrid was grown in the lighter land for 2018. But despite this, the hybrid still averaged 8.6t/ha versus 7.5t/ha from the conventional barley in this year’s harvest before correcting for moisture, with the conventional cut drier, notes Mr Larter.
“We were late coming out of winter in 2018 and again the hybrid seemed to have the edge on vigour with the late start to spring.
“It seems to give us consistency across soil types and years. Consistency is important because it gives us the ability to predict how the crop will perform and better work out gross margins.
“We can earn as much out of a crop of winter barley as we can out of second wheat in most situations, and the barley gives us an earlier harvest.” Also, he says winter barley’s low cost of production and high yields make its margins comparable with winter oilseed rape.
“Anywhere we’ve got drought-prone soil, black-grass or rabbit issues, the hybrid seems to fit. Probably 90 per cent of the barley area will be in hybrid again this autumn. Bazooka was a step on from the earlier hybrid,” he adds.