After some poor second wheat performances this harvest, experts are encouraging growers to be mindful of the ‘extra attention’ the crop requires in order to achieve returns which will compete with alternatives such as winter barley.
Early drilled second wheat crops on light soil types are said to have suffered most as a result of the dry spring. Where take-all has been an issue, yields have been particularly lacklustre.
South Yorkshire farmer Bob Atkinson says: “Some second crops have been disappointing, particularly on drought-stressed land which yielded as little as 6 tonnes/hectare.”
Norfolk-based Prime Agriculture agronomist Phil Simons believes second wheat yields in his area have been down about 20 per cent on last year, with many crops yielding around 1.5t/ha (0.6t/acre) lower than first wheats.
However, experts insist second wheat can offer competitive gross margins. In fact, AHDB gross margin calculations for 2018 show second feed wheats offer the second most profitable rotational option of all the feed-grade cereals when sown after a first wheat. When considering higher grade cereals, its gross margin ranking drops to fifth, according to AHDB.
But in order to maximise gross margins, Mr Simons says growers need focus on optimising crop establishment.
“First of all, growers should make sure their soil fertility status is good. Second wheat is often a good place in the rotation to apply farmyard manure which provides a slow release of nitrogen and phosphate. An early application of N can also be useful in getting the crop up and away,” he says.
Where take-all is a risk, he suggests delaying drilling until after mid-October. He also recommends using a seed treatment such as Latitude to reduce the risk from soil-borne diseases.
He says variety choice is another important factor to consider.“From my experience some of the newer varieties such as Shabras and KWS Kerrin have performed particularly well in the second wheat position.”
However Barry Barker, national arable seed manager for Agrii, says there is a strong argument for planting an alternative crop to second wheat.
“People have been disappointed by second wheat, and they often had to spend a fair bit of money getting the yields which they did. So there is a lot of debate.
“Gross margins on second wheats have always been borderline. If growers are looking at improving margins from the second wheat slot, they might be better off looking at a different crop, and not just trying to find the magic wheat variety,” he says.
Where black-grass is present, Mr Barker suggests substituting second wheat with hybrid in order to gain a competitive advantage against the weed.
“The black-grass suppression effects of hybrid barley are now well established, but it also has the potential to deliver comparable yields to second wheat, if not better, and is cheaper to grow. Plus its early harvest also allows more time to get back into winter oilseed rape.”
This latter point is significant, he says, because the winter OSR area has stopped falling, as people have been attracted by its prices.
An independent study commissioned by Syngenta, which examined five years’ of data from more than 70,000ha (172,970 acres) of winter wheat and barley, showed the average harvest date for winter barley was around a month earlier than that of second wheat, points out Mr Bullen. On average, hybrid barley was also harvested four days earlier than conventional feed barley, he adds.
“More interestingly, the average yield for oilseed rape planted after hybrid barley was 0.73t/ha higher than when planted after second wheat,” says Mr Bullen. “It was also 0.46t/ha higher after hybrid barley than when planted after conventional barley.
“We are not entirely sure where this extra oilseed rape yield came from after the hybrid. It could have been because oilseed rape crops were more advanced after being planted earlier after hybrid barley, or it could have been because the earlier-harvested hybrid barley allowed more time for preparing better seedbeds.”