Lessons from past – options for the future
Winter barleys performed erratically this harvest depending mainly on moisture availability.
Andrew Blake asks what lessons can be learned
AVOID being over-influenced by one years results, look for reliability, but watch for varieties that seem suited by particular conditions. That sums up the reaction of industry specialists to this years winter barley results.
Most agree there are two options. Play safe and accept a reasonably assured, but modest yield – or gamble with a variety that should come up trumps, but may occasionally disappoint. Some varieties fared much better than others in last seasons unusual growing conditions. Whether such conditions repeat themselves remains to be seen. But for growers who believe the UK climate is changing, a trawl of trials figures could prove enlightening.
Hunting purely for drought-tolerant types, though, could be misleading, suggests Simon Philips of New Farm Crops. Many growers remember 1996 for the summer drought. Not so well recalled is the dull, cool spring, he says. "Varieties like Puffin, Melanie and Gleam, that like to get going early were delayed. That suited later maturing ones like Fanfare."
Results from Morley Research Centre in drought-stricken East Anglia indicate that for some varieties, notably Gaelic, the causes of poor yields occurred even earlier.
Disease pressure muddies the picture further. NIAB figures put Puffin, jointly the least resistant of the listed varieties to net blotch, two points down on its five-year average. "There were some very high levels of net blotch in the south-west and Puffin didnt do very well there," notes Mr Philips. The fact that the south-west tends to warm up sooner in the spring is significant, he believes.
That Fanfare had a good year is generally acknowledged. Alan Armstrong for breeder Zeneca says it is one of several varieties that seemed to handle the dry weather better than others.
Regina, a couple of points ahead of its five-year mean in NIAB trials, also did very well, he acknowledges. But initial Arable Research Centres work suggests it may be more suited to heavier rather than light land.
Fanfare calls tune
"My own view is that Fanfare is a type that doesnt set quite so many grain sites, but under a drought can fill them better," says Mr Armstrong. He admits his comment is based on observation rather than strict science.
Of all varieties in ARC trials Fanfare recorded the highest comparative yield rating – on thin limestone brash at Cirencester. But on clay loam at Taunton it gave slightly below the site mean, leaving it with the widest overall yield range in the trials.
Unfortunately soil moisture deficits for the two sites are not available, says director Dr Mike Carver, so it cannot be assumed that drought was the main influence.
Nine varieties in ARC work across six regions had relative yield ranges of between 5 and 10%. Another 16 registered between 10 and 20%. But the difference between Fanfares highest and lowest relative output was 25.1%.
Only three varieties proved particularly consistent across all ARC regions – Puffin and two mid-yielding newcomers, Candy and WB94/5 (Spirit). But with site ratings of only 88.3-92.4, Puffin clearly showed its dislike of 1996 conditions.
Berks-based AICC agronomist Laurence Sim says one of the attractions of Epic and Pastoral has been their regularly sound performance.
On heavy, moisture-retentive land Gaelic did well last year, he adds. "But its not very popular because of its very short drilling window."
MRC agronomist Doug Stevens believes last autumns dry conditions largely explain disappointing results from Gaelic in both heavy and light land trials. Excessively dry seed-beds meant it did not tiller as it should. "The roots grew between the clods, but then died out in spring leaving thin crops so it could not give its full potential."
Elsoms Bob Miles says the key to good results from Gaelic is sowing date. "It shouldnt be drilled by the first week in October."n
• Dry autumn, cool dull spring and summer drought.
• Establishment big factor for some varieties.
• Early developing types disadvantaged.
• Wide yield range of top ARC performer.
• Some indications of drought resistance.
• Disease pressure influences.
• Scope for more physiological response research.
Pinpointing the causes of variable winter barley results is not easy. But some varieties can clearly withstand adverse conditions better then others.