John Hare switched to growing spring barley for the whisky industry and now has the prospect of a premium as much as £30/t for his grain this harvest.

He is hedging his bets by growing a dual-purpose malting variety so if it does not meet the strict demands of the distillers then his crop may still go for brewing.

Grain traders say the price differential between these two markets is about £10/t, and so if Mr Hare hits the distillers’ target he could see a useful boost to his margins.

See also: Malting barley growers get more fungicide choice

“We are looking to grow barley to meet the increased demand from the distillers, while the needs of the brewers are in decline,” he says.

His heavy boulder clays soils in Essex may not be traditional malting barley country, but he met the distillers’ specifications at harvest 2013.

Then, he grew a near-7t/ha crop of the variety Concerto with a grain nitrogen of 1.62%, within the distillers’ needs for a maximum nitrogen of 1.65%.

A maltster’s view

One of the biggest independent maltsters Crisp only contracts for non-GN varieties Concerto and Odyssey with the aim of supplying the Scottish distilling industry.

The Norfolk-based maltster contracts about half its annual needs and says it could do all its business just using these two varieties of spring barley.

“Farmers are being encouraged to go for non-GN varieties as that’s where the premium is for them,” says Crisp’s commercial director Bob King.

He adds that he would be happy if farmers wanted to grow 100% of these non-GN varieties as if the grain does not make the minimum 1.65% nitrogen content for distilling then it can usually go for use in brewing.

Crisp is one of the five big independent malting groups along with Bairds, Boortmalt, Muntons and Simpsons who all supply both the brewing and distilling industries with malting barley.

Adrian Fisher, malting barley trader at co-operative Openfield, says a tighter picture for malting barley post-harvest is signalling higher malting premiums over feed barley.

He expects current malting premiums for brewing use to widen from about £7/t currently to near £20/t post-harvest, and distilling types to expand from £17/t to about £30/t.

This extra distilling premium encouraged Mr Hare to move to Concerto three years ago and drop his old brewing favourite variety Optic.

His three-year record with Concerto has given him yields of 5.7t/ha, 4.5t/ha and then 6.9t/ha in 2013, and he is preparing to drill Concerto again this spring.

“We gave up growing Optic as with Concerto we are simply getting more premium,” he says.

Spring barley returned to the farm about 15 years ago when Mr Hare dropped oilseed rape after admitting defeat against the combined problems of pigeons and slugs.

His five-year rotation has now settled into spring barley, spring beans, winter wheat, winter oats and then winter wheat again on his all-arable 160ha farm.

Last year he grew 31ha of Concerto, drilled on 2 April at a higher-than-average rate of 300-350 seed/sq m to encourage the shy-tillering variety.

He applied 120kg/ha of urea nitrogen as soon after drilling as possible, and sees little advantage in splitting as late applications of nitrogen could push up the all-important grain nitrogen.

“We have been looking at the optimum level of nitrogen for spring barley for a number of years, and think we have got it about right,” he adds.

He used two herbicide sprays against broad-leaved weeds and wild oats, two triazole-based fungicides and a foliar spray containing the micronutrients manganese and copper.

It is generally a low-input crop and Mr Hare believes his near-7t/ha crop of spring malting barley comes close in terms of profit margins with winter wheat yielding just over 8t/ha in 2013 at his Freemans Farm, Elder Street, Wimbish, some three miles east of Saffron Walden.

“What we lose in the yield, we can save on sprays and fertiliser,” he says.

Mr Hare’s agronomist Paul Gardiner at distributor ProCam says winter wheat will always win out in terms of gross margin even in a good year for spring barley such as in 2013 when it yielded 6.9t/ha on Mr Hare’s farm compared with a poor year for wheat, which yielded 8.3t/ha.

“However, if you can get the distilling premium then it makes spring barley an attractive option,” says Mr Gardiner.

The two spring crops in Mr Hare’s rotation also help him spread the workload as he works the farm for most of the year with just his wife, while the spring breaks also help to control the ubiquitous blackgrass.

The Limagrain-bred Concerto is currently the only spring barley variety on the HGCA Recommended List fully approved for brewing and distilling.

The varieties favoured by the distillers are those that do not produce glycosidic nitrile (GN) compounds in the malting process and are known as non-GN.

The non-GN Concerto lags the yield of the top brewing malting variety Propino, but another Limagrain non-GN variety Odyssey just outyields Propino and is expected to get brewing approval this May to join Concerto as a further dual-purpose variety.

Limagrain’s senior barley breeder Mark Glew says Odyssey does not suffer a yield penalty compared with the leading brewing varieties and is reasonably cheap to grow.

“Odyssey could be the new Concerto for the next few years,” he says.

David Leaper, arable technical manager at Openfield, say East Anglia appears to be the best region to produce low-grain nitrogen malting barley after Scotland.

The higher summer light levels and longer days in Scotland are ideal for diluting grain nitrogen, which the distillers favour as it gives a higher yield of spirit.

Mr Leaper suggests English farmers should look to mimic the long Scottish growing season by drilling as early as possible to extend the time the crop is in the ground.

However, if Mr Hare’s barley does not get under the maximum 1.65% grain nitrogen level the distillers demand then he can still sell it for use in brewing to a maximum of 1.85% grain nitrogen.

“Ideally, we want a dual-purpose variety to give us this flexibility and we are already looking for the next variety,” he says.

Mr Hare is planning 22ha of Concerto this spring, down from the 31ha in 2013 due to rotation restrictions. But next year the area is likely to be increased and he will look closely at growing Odyssey.

As a member of Camgrain, he markets all his grain through the farmer-owned co-operative, which in turn supplies all the major maltsters.

Bob Bingley, another malting barley trader with Openfield, works closely with Camgrain and encourages growers to look at dual-purpose varieties to get the best price for their grain.

“We have brought the non-GN varieties into the mainstream,” he says.