Spring barley harvest in progress©FLPA/Rex Shutterstock

Spring barley can be a better bet than second winter wheat crops even on heavy land if the benefits of better blackgrass control are included.

Gross margins from the spring crop can be £150-£200/ha more than a second successive wheat crop due to lower growing costs and a long-term reduction in blackgrass.

See also: Harvest 2015: Spring barley finished on Dorset estate

Four years of trials on a heavy land site at Brampton in Cambridgeshire by distribution and agronomy group Hutchinsons has illustrated the success of spring barley.

“Getting good blackgrass control from a spring crop has long-term value across the rotation and I believe many growers need to look again at the justification for spring cropping,” says group technical manager Dick Neale.

Second wheats at the Brampton site typically delivered a gross margin of £490/ha from a long-term average yield of 9.5t/ha, which was above the £475/ha from spring barley yielding 7.5t/ha.

However, in four years of growing second wheats under high blackgrass pressure, 5-7% of the crop was typically sprayed-off each year to minimise blackgrass seed return, costing £52/ha.

The extra passes required for winter-sown second wheats add another £50/ha in costs over spring barley, says Mr Neale.

Furthermore, even when delayed drilling is used, blackgrass control is very variable, and of all the cultural options available, ploughing is the only one that can give good blackgrass control.

“Add a nominal value of this at £50-£60/ha to the gross margin calculations and the real gross margin from spring barley can soon be £150/ha and may be up to £200/ha better than a second wheat,” he says.

Mr Neale acknowledges the main factor preventing many growers on heavy clay soils from spring cropping is the time soils take to dry out and warm up in the spring.

But he insists this can be overcome with appropriate management. Autumn-sown cover crops are a particularly effective way of drying land out and conditioning soil ahead of spring drilling.

“If you’re willing to spend £40-£50/ha on ploughing, why not spend that on a cover crop instead, which can effectively do the same job and increase your window for drilling in spring,” he says.