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Farm focus: Barley introduction delivering rotational and weed control benefits

Re-introducing winter barley into the rotation was the obvious step as an earlier entry for oilseed rape for one West Midlands grower. And by choosing a hybrid, he believes he has given black-grass some stiff competition.
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Warwickshire farm manager Jon Parker admits he does not do things by halves. Managing 1,200 hectares (2,960 acres) of combinable crops at Ragley Home Farms, Alcester, not far from the Worcestershire border, the difficult 2012 autumn convinced him he really needed to establish the farm’s winter oilseed rape earlier.


With the crop grown in a two-year rotation with 600ha (1,480 acres) of first wheat, he also wanted to add a third crop ahead of CAP reform.


Including winter barley in the rotation was the obvious solution. But like many growers, he says the farm was struggling with black-grass on its variable soils, which range from gravel to heavy Denchworth clay.


Committed to tackling both the weed and the new rules, he took the plunge and planted 200ha (494 acres) of hybrid winter barley last autumn, partly for its vigorous growth. One year on and he is pleased with the results.


“It is the first time we have grown it. We wanted something to bring harvest forward, so we had a decent window to establish oilseed rape in August.


“We have gone from having no barley on the farm for 12 years to having 200 hectares - along with 400 hectares of winter oilseed rape and 600 hectares of winter wheat.


“Before, we were 50:50 winter wheat and oilseed rape but we were losing the fight against black-grass. Also, pre-empting the three-crop rule, we thought we would do it before we had to.


“Hyvido hybrid barley seemed to give us a chance to put a competitive barley in the ground and drill slightly later than winter wheat - which we plant in the first or second week of September.


“This fits with end of September drilling, so it gives us more of an opportunity to spray off in stale seedbeds.


“At the other end of the season, it spreads our harvest workload and gives us a chance to get a black-grass chit and stale seedbed before the oilseed rape.”


With 850 breeding ewes the only livestock on-farm, after the dairy and beef cattle were sold off a few years ago, the hybrid barley grain is being sold off at harvest, rather than home-fed.


Additionally, the barley straw has a value in the area, giving further income potential and, with grain yields this harvest of 7.2 to 8.6t/ha (2.9-3.5t/acre), the hybrid barley has outyielded the 7-7.5 tonnes per hectare (2.8-3t/acre) achieved when second wheat was grown on-farm.


After drilling the hybrid on September 22-24, following a stale seedbed, Mr Parker admits to initially being concerned by the low seed rate recommended for it. Though by spring, he says, it was starting to thrive.


“To compete with black-grass, we do not normally plant wheat at less than 350 seeds per sq.m. But we stuck with the recommended rate of 200 seeds/sq.m for the hybrid.


“It was not as vigorous in the autumn, possibly because everything was so wet and cold.


“But as soon as it warmed up in March, almost overnight it started flying.


“My worry was we had not competed with the black-grass early on, but from looking like it did, it kept the light out, so it was way down.


“The 200ha were planted mainly on a medium silty clay loam with varying degrees of black-grass - we wanted to give it a challenge,” he adds.


As well as crop competition from the hybrid barley, Mr Parker used a pre- and post-emergence herbicide programme in the crop, stacking a number of pre-ems.


“It is not a panacea for our black-grass,” he says of the hybrid.


“Like anything, if you have a black-grass problem, you have got to have a stale seedbed and stack your pre-ems.”


However, he says there was visibly less black-grass than in the winter wheat.


So much so, he is looking to grow hybrid barley again for the 2015 harvest, potentially changing the rotation to 400ha each of winter wheat, hybrid barley and winter oilseed rape.


Overall, he believes it is important to look at how the whole rotation works together and not get carried away focusing on the profitability of a single crop over one season.


Usefully, the farm can also achieve good black-grass control in oilseed rape.


Also, for resistance management, Mr Parker believes having a third crop means part of the winter wheat on-farm is not

being sprayed with a post-em sulfonylurea every two years.


“We have some bits of land which will not take winter barley so it might be some of the block cropping has to go, just so we can get the acreage in.”


But he believes this is potentially worth it, as is the extra seed cost for the hybrid compared with conventional barley.


“If it delivers the benefit, I am prepared to pay for it,” he says.


Using hybrid barley in the Ragley Home Farm rotation

Unit previously had a two-year rotation - 600 hectares (1,480 acres) of first winter wheat and winter OSR. However, they wanted to:

  • Establish winter OSR earlier
  • Pre-empt CAP reform with a third crop
  • Improve black-grass management

They then introduced 200ha (494 acres) of hybrid barley for the following reasons:

  • Earlier combining - for winter OSR establishment in August and possibility of stale seedbeds in between
  • Ability to drill later than first winter wheat - providing a key opportunity for stale seedbeds
  • Vigorous growth against black-grass (after seeing vigour of hybrid OSR)
  • Yield potential when compared to second wheat
  • Income from straw

Jon Parker is now considering growing a third each of winter wheat, hybrid barley and winter OSR.


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