THERE IS no shortage of apparently tempting alternatives to the mainstream cereals, oilseed rape, peas and beans.

But to get the best from the likes of borage, crambe, hemp, lupins, millet, soya and sunflowers, newcomers must adopt them enthusiastically and be ready to tap into specialist help, say their promoters.

Growers should be prepared to spend more time getting to know the unusual crops’ growth habits and characteristics and checking their condition, advises Simon Meakin of Springdale Crop Synergies.

“After all, they have been growing wheat, barley and rape for many years and know how they perform.”

Agronomists, too, should not ignore assistance where it is available, he adds. “We are always ready to discuss any agronomic issues. After all, we want the crop to perform to its full potential as it is pre-sold into a known market.”

The key for any relatively new crop is whether it will sell, warns Edward Willmott of Premium Crops. “There is no point in growing something with no value.” In most cases that means securing a buy-back contract when ordering seed.

PC’s offer of 110/t ex-farm next harvest for white or blue feed lupins anywhere on the correct soils south of the M62 makes the crop a better proposition than either peas or beans, says Mr Willmott.

Lupin types

Within the rapidly expanding lupins area it is important to pick the right type, says David McNaughton, whose firm Soya UK reckons to handle 55% of the UK market.

About 35% of the 8000ha (20,000 acre) 2004 crop was grown for wholecrop silage, he says. “Type and variety should be chosen according to what part of the country you are in, soil pH and the intended use or market.”

Whites tend to yield most, may be exported and can tolerate soils up to pH 7.9.

Blues, being earlier, are generally more reliable for northern growers. Yellow types, which offer proteins of up to 44%, are for combining only, and come into their own on low pH (4.8-7.0) soils or infertile land, he adds.

Nearly all such crops, like crambe and hemp, are spring sown, so good, warm seed-beds are important to get them away evenly and quickly to counter weeds, says Mr Meakin. “Well sown is half grown.” It”s a similar picture with borage, says Neal Boughton of John J King & Son.

“Can you prepare an uncompacted, fine, firm and flat stale seed-bed and do you have the patience to wait until soil conditions are right before drilling – even if this means waiting until late April?” During the growing season don’t wait until the rest of the spraying or fieldwork is done before addressing the new crop, even though it may not be a big area, urges Mr Meakin.

That same philosophy should apply at harvest, he says. “If it’s ready, cut it. Often seed is lost by leaving new crops until the rest are in the barn – even though in many cases they are worth considerably more.”

To succeed with borage growers must get it swathed soon after making the decision, have a pick-up header for the combine, and be able to dry it as soon as it is harvested, says Mr Boughton.

The herbicide options for most of these crops are quite restricted, and new strict residue limits mean agrochemical inputs to borage are restricted where the crop is destined for baby food, he adds.

“But that is not considered a problem by most experienced growers as there are few pests and diseases.”

Row crop cultivators can help, especially with sunflowers, suggests Mr Willmott. “Sunflowers particularly like air around their roots.”

Both sunflowers and soya have suffered from lack of summer sunshine and late harvests in recent seasons, says ADAS’s Sarah Cooke. “Growers must choose varieties that have been trialled in the UK and are proven to be early.”

Despite strong demand for sunflowers as bird and pet foods, and several growers” success with the crop, the future of the UK Sunflower Association is in doubt, she acknowledges.

After a flurry of interest five years ago, the UK soya area has declined to about 200ha (500 acres), adds Mr McNaughton. “But the market potential is huge and UK non-GM soya commands a premium.”

Mammoth millet, a productive short season crop ready for combining 130 days after sowing, is also in good demand for the birdseed market and the firm hopes to expand next season”s area to 400ha (1000 acres), he says.