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Putting the spring back into barley

It is time for a new approach to spring barley growing, says a leading agronomist. Drill it on light land as early in the year as possible; apply 100 units N/acre, all by early stem extension; and aim not to exceed 1.65% nitrogen in the grain.


Drill it on light land as early in the year as possible; apply 100 units N/acre, all by early stem extension; and aim not to exceed 1.65% nitrogen in the grain.


The tried and tested central pillars of UK spring barley production have been finely honed by generations of malting growers across the country. To such an extent we all know we should not try growing malting barley on decent winter wheat ground, sow it after the end of

March or use more than 120kg N/ha.


This may have been a perfectly sensible approach in the past. But modern times require fresh thinking, believes Agrii head of agronomy Colin Lloyd. Not least given the need to extend wheat rotations to deal with growing black-grass problems, autumn workload pressures and CAP rules.


Add to this the way in which the malting market has developed in recent years to offer significant premium-earning opportunities for grain nitrogens of up to 2% and spring barley has, they stress, become an increasingly valuable rotational option for growers who might never seriously have considered it in the past.

Modern approach

“Our trial work on a range of soil types across the country shows spring barley can be sown as late as mid-April on heavier ground with no yield penalty,” he says. “Current varieties also respond well to nitrogen applications of 180kg/ha, or more without necessarily going out of specification for many malting requirements. And, in most cases, they only require a relatively simple T1+T2 fungicide programme.


“Growers coming back to spring barley after a number of years should not be wedded to the old rule book. Instead, they should take an altogether more modern approach to its agronomy.”


Mr Lloyd’s colleague, Agrii seed trials manager, Colin Patrick insists unlike wheat, even where quality is not the aim, growers should not be deterred from choosing quality spring barley varieties. There is no significant difference in either average treated yields or specific weights between feed and malting barleys on the current Recommended List, he says.


“Under these circumstances, choose a variety for its agronomic strengths and suitability for your conditions rather than anything else.


And, all other things being equal, go for a malting rather than feed type to give yourself the widest marketing options – especially with the high N malt markets now available.”


Two characteristics he considers worth particular attention in modern spring barley selection are maturity and straw yield.


“Like winter wheats and OSR, higher yields in spring barley breeding have increasingly been secured through later maturity. Our national network of variety trials show major differences between the maturities of 49 modern varieties, equating to a seven- to 10-day difference in harvesting. This can be significant when you are looking for the best winter OSR entry to minimise flea beetle and other key establishment risks.


“Last season’s trials at Throws Farm showed straw yields between varieties ranging from 1.7 tonnes/ha to 3.10t/ha, worth a useful £75/ha at big-bale straw prices of £55/t. On many western and northern farms straw yields are likely to be significantly higher than this, making an even greater difference to returns.”


Drilling date

Drilling date

Agrii trials on both heavy and light land over the past four years show no relationship whatsoever between yield and drilling date, with crops drilled in early or mid-April one year out-performing those sown in early or mid-March another and vice versa.


“Seedbed conditions are far more important than calendar date,” says Mr Patrick. “With heavy land, in particular, the worst thing you can do is maul spring barley into cold, wet ground. Do your primary cultivations before Christmas so you are not battling the elements and bringing up clods in the early spring. Then wait until the ground dries out and warms up sufficiently, even if this means delaying sowing until the middle of April. With such a short growing season, getting the crop off to the best start is crucial.


“Adjust sowing rates for seedbed conditions by all means, but don’t be tempted to increase them dramatically for later drilling. Even in the late-spring of 2013, our trials with a number of varieties sown into heavy Essex ground on April 15 showed no advantage from increasing rates from 320 to 380 seeds/sq.m.”

Crop nutrition

In helping spring barley get a good start, Agrii trials in Aberdeen recorded yield benefits of up to 0.75t/ha from seedbed phosphate last season. The value of manganese was also highlighted in Yorkshire investigations – seed treatment alone giving a 0.3t/ha yield boost and increases of more than 1t/ha being obtained from seed treatment followed by manganese-coated fertiliser and foliar manganese.


“Our nitrogen rates and timing studies also underline the importance of not being wedded to the past in spring barley growing,” says Agrii trials project manager, Duncan Robertson. “Across two Scottish sites in 2014 we recorded average responses of 0.4t/ha and 0.7t/ha from increasing the pre-tillering N applied to two malting varieties from 120kg/ha to 180kg/ha. Importantly too, in both varieties this was without raising grain nitrogens beyond 1.7%.


“Across 17 varieties in further Scottish trials we saw an average 0.7t/ha yield benefit from increasing a farm standard 166kg N/ha regime to 241kg N/ha, 25kg of which was applied at flag leaf – again without raising grain nitrogens beyond many modern malting specifications. In subsequent trials, a 0.3t/ha average response came from 25kg of late N alone.”


Across two Scottish sites last year average responses of 0.4 tonnes/hectare and 0.7t/ha were recorded from increasing pre-tillering nitrogen applied to two malting varieties from 120kg/ha to 180kg/ha.


The Agrii R&D team has also seen an average 0.8t/ha increase across a range of different N regimes from growing a fodder radish cover crop after winter wheat ahead of spring barley in Wiltshire – an extra 0.5t/ha coming on top of a full 180kg/ha nitrogen regime.


“While more nitrogen than traditionally used and extra phosphate and manganese look to be valuable, the same could not be said for more than a reasonably simple T1 + T2 fungicide programme,” Mr Robertson says.


“Over the past three years we have obtained average yield responses of up to 0.9t/ha from two spray regimes in low disease pressure situations and up to 2.8t/ha where rhynchosporium levels, in particular, were appreciable. Our results suggest there may be a slight advantage from using SDHIs rather than strobilurins in some high disease situations, but that in most cases robust prothioconazole + strobilurin treatments are likely to be quite sufficient.”


Barley for a UK-brewed bottle of Bud

Agrii, Glencore and the Crisp Malting Group have established a UK production group to grow a high output continental spring barley Explorer on an enhanced premium buyback contract for UK Budweiser production. The initiative encourages malting barley production in central England, an area not traditionally seen as a core malting barley region.


Approved for malting in France in 2011 and widely grown on the continent since then, the Secobra variety has been tested across Agrii’s trials network over the past few seasons. Successful farm production on a pilot scale last year has enabled a dedicated UK market to be secured for growing volumes with Budweiser brewer Anheuser Busch.


Agrii crop marketing manager Francis Pickering says: “Initially, our group involves about 25 growers, with the opportunity for substantial expansion for 2016 and beyond. We have secured a valuable premium over conventional malting barley for this new variety in order to encourage growers to switch to this new programme.


“Although the crop will be malted in Norfolk, we have deliberately developed our core producer group around the non-traditional malting barley growing areas of central England. Our target grower should have the capability of producing a barley which is higher in nitrogen than would normally be required. By coming further west we feel this will be comfortably achieved through close collaboration between grower and agronomist.”


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