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Spring barley being superseded by wide-window wheat


The autumn-to-spring sowing flexibility of soft feed wheat, Belepi is allowing one Bedfordshire farm to replace some of its spring barley.

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The autumn-to-spring sowing flexibility of soft feed wheat Belepi is allowing one Bedfordshire farm to replace some of its spring barley with higher margin wheat in the wake of lower barley prices, while maintaining the benefits of later sowing and providing an additional black-grass control tool.


The rotation at M.W. and P.V. Ward’s farm near Keysoe is based around winter wheat, spring barley and oilseed rape, much of which is grown for seed on contract to Frontier and to Ebbage Seeds.


With the farm’s heavy land being susceptible to black-grass development, a broad rotation has long been considered preferable even before the imposition of the three crop rule. But while barley had for some time been the business’ highest gross margin crop, its financial performance has been hit by a recent surge in the crop’s acreage.


Freya Morgan, who runs the business with her parents, says: “With the national area having risen significantly in recent seasons, spring barley has become less attractive to grow.


“We still need a second cereal prior to drilling oilseed rape, but we generally have to be off our heavy soils by late October and cannot get back on them until March. This is why the October to end of March sowing window of Belepi attracted our interest when Ebbage Seeds approached us to grow it.


“In addition, we are in a bad black-grass area, and if we cannot get a good black-grass kill before we intend drilling a field in autumn, a variety such as Belepi reduces the pressure to get the seed sown by the end of October if conditions are not right.


“We have some fields which are particularly bad for black-grass, and when I read about Belepi in the farming press and found out more about the spreading growth habit giving black-grass less room to grow, we looked into the variety more closely. This led ultimately to entering into a contract to produce a seed crop for harvest 2014.”


Despite its wide window, the 40 hectares (100 acres) of Belepi sown that season, after ploughing and using an Accord TS Evo drill, was all autumn-sown, as the Wards sought to learn about the variety and how to manage it.


Morgan says: “Seed rates were low. We drilled at 100kg/ha with a 50g TGW. But when visitors to the farm looked at the crop in late June they thought we had used a seed rate of double that. It grows like a normal winter wheat throughout autumn and winter, but come March it takes off.


“This was so evident, we applied two doses of growth regulator – at the end of March and in mid-April – and held back on nitrogen. The crop looked so good we did not want it to go down. This ultimately meant we did not optimise yield potential. But the flag leaf was huge and the ear was long, making it a good ‘sports car’ crop.


“Rather than wheat trying to compete with black-grass, as seems to be the case with many other varieties, with Belepi things seem to be the other way round. It is the weed which struggles to compete with the wheat.”


Earliness of harvest was another attraction, whether autumn- or spring-sown, and during harvest 2014, the October 2013-drilled crop was cut before the farm’s Cordiale.


Morgan says: “Having an early harvesting date means we can spread our combine workload, and even if the Belepi is sown later in autumn or in spring, it still appears to be an early variety to harvest.”


Good sprouting and orange wheat blossom midge resistance are further bonuses, she says, and with a disease profile similar to Santiago, it has proved relatively easy to manage in terms of fungicide planning.


This, and the size of the variety’s leaves, have been highlighted by Fera plant analysis results from a survey of crop health and protection. Data showed the flag leaf on Belepi had a green leaf area index of 95.6, while the regional flag leaf area was 15 per cent lower at 81.2 and the national was 20 per cent lower at 76.2.


The second leaf on the Belepi had a green leaf area index of 88.8, with regional figures 19 per cent lower at 72.1 and national 30 per cent lower at 62.5.


Yields varied across the three fields grown last year, and all for different reasons, says Morgan.


“On the combine yield monitor, good areas were yielding 10 tonnes/ha where there was little or no black-grass, but half of this amount where black-grass was heavy.


“In other varieties, the drop in yield was significantly worse on comparable black-grass areas, and in those crops, we abandoned some parts of the field as the crop was poor and we did not want to spread the weed seeds.”


The performance of Belepi has convinced Morgan to commit to further seed production for 2015 and more than triple the area grown. While 120ha (300 acres) was drilled in autumn, a further 20ha (50 acres) will be sown this spring.


“This will take the place of some of the spring barley, and because the variety is classed as a spring wheat for BPS, but a winter wheat for cross-compliance, it is ideal in both respects.”


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