RISING BLACKGRASS control and fertiliser costs mean spring barley’s profitability is increasing against winter wheat, says a Cambs farm consultant.

“Gross margin calculations for 2005 suggest malting spring barley could do better than winter wheat,” says Simon Ward of Increment. “With average yields of 5.1t/ha, spring barley could achieve a gross margin of 239/ha, whereas winter wheat would only reach 195/ha under the same conditions.”

Where blackgrass resistance is a problem, control costs can exceed 40/ha in winter wheat, Mr Ward points out. “And the nitrogen price rise means nitrogen costs are 85/ha for wheat, compared to 43/ha for spring barley.”

Spring barley’s performance tends to be more erratic than wheat’s, he admits.

Els points

“It does not suit everyone. But with the exception of seed the growing costs are much lower, it earns valuable ELS points through over-wintered stubbles and there are fixed cost advantages.”

Careful crop management makes a considerable difference, he says. “There’s more scope to improve the crop’s performance. And it’s possible to minimise the risk of not making malting specification through good variety choice.”

Market needs

Optic continues to dominate UK spring barley sales and malt production, but its performance suffered for the first time this year, says Greencore Malting Group.

“There have been some concerns surrounding germination issues,” says purchasing manager Mark Isaacson. “The wet harvest seems to have affected Optic more than others.”

Getting customers to accept new varieties is a lengthy process, he warns. “The Japanese only took Optic two years ago. So although there are alternatives, there is unlikely to be strong demand for another two years.”

For some brewers the maximum grain N content is 1.75. “The majority of malting barley for the premium lagers is needed in the 1.65-1.75 range. That has come down a bit since last year.” Cellar and Cocktail are both IoB approved, and offer alternatives to Optic where it has disappointed, he notes. “Cellar is suitable for brewing, while Cocktail has a recommendation for brewing and distilling.”

There is plenty of customer interest in Cocktail. “It is being seen as an Optic replacement. But there will be a bit of a time delay with the export markets.”

Variety choice

Cocktail is set to take 12% of the 2005 spring barley market, predicts New Farm Crops’ Robert Hiles. “This is its first year of full industry backing, despite its making it on to the 2003 Recommended List.”

Its IoB approval for both brewing and distilling sends a clear message to growers, he says. “As well as having market acceptance, it yields an extra 0.5t/ha over Optic and has a lower grain N content.”

Profitability will be 35-40/ha (14-16/acre) more with Cocktail than other two-row spring varieties, he calculates. “It also offers better straw stability and improved disease resistance. Early drilling seems to suit the variety, too.”