5 January 1996

Maltings favourite, but…

Picking a spring crop winner looks easy this season. But before rushing into malting barley, it should be worthwhile considering the alternatives. In this special we relay industry views and provide details on varieties of the main options, to help judge what is best for your farm. Edited by

Andrew Blake

THERE seems little debate over which spring crop has best potential this year. With premiums of at least £40/t over feed for next harvest, malting barley has a clear edge over all other main options, according to figures from various sources.

At the other end of the scale industrial cropping of oilseeds is "financially very marginal", according to Rachel Potter, farming consultant with land agent Strutt and Parker.

Enthusiasm for malting barley is reflected in strong demand for suitable varieties. Dalgetys national seeds manager David Neale reckons more than half spring sales in the crop were booked before Christmas.

The danger, pundits warn, is that unwary growers could end up disappointed.

Not only might they fail to achieve the tempting premiums, but having grown the crop for malting rather than all-out yield, they could also miss out on gross output.

"The risk of growing malting barley on land that is marginal for malting is considerable," says Andrew Mason of the Sentry Farming Group. "There is a distinct possibility that you miss the yield benefits of higher yielding feed varieties and fail to make malting quality through nitrogens being too high."

Cargills northern region business manager Charlie Whitmarsh comments: "Anybody on really heavy land should leave it alone."

High soil nitrogen residues this winter could make it trickier than usual to achieve optimum fertiliser applications.

Gross margin comparisons are only a guide to the best crop choice. Suitability to soil type and susceptibility to summer drought are equally important as some spring bean growers found to their cost last year. "Beans are certainly not the flavour of the day because of their variability," says Mr Neale.

The need to retain some cereal breaks in the rotation will be important for many growers. Indeed ADAS suggests pea and bean margins could justifiably be "£20-£30/ha" higher to reflect their benefit to following wheat crops.

With winter oilseed rape well established, very little redrilling with spring varieties is expected. But continued uncompetitive area aid for pulses, despite strong UK lobbying, makes oilseeds potentially more attractive.

Peas for human consumption offering premiums of up to £60/t could change the picture for growers able to grow good samples for niche markets.

Range of returns

That highlights the range of returns that can be masked by average gross margins, says ADAS senior business management consultant Mark Lazzeri. "It is important to use realistic figures for your own farm." Growing peas for human consumption tends to be a "specialist job".

The ADAS figures for malting barley vary from £780-£960/ha for malting barley, he notes. Farm business consultant David Bolton of Andersons puts the spread even wider – £675-£1063/ha. "The most interesting feature for this year is that spring crop gross margins are predicted to be well in excess of those achieved last year," he says.

Mr Lazzeri believes the spring rape area could drop 10%. Semundos Jeremy Taylor is more optimistic. "With the winter plantings of oilseed rape 7-10% less than in 1994, there is real scope for an increased spring area."

Area payments are unlikely to be cut because the EU area should not have exceeded base area, he adds.

Spring rape is preferable to linseed in the north because of the latters later harvest, he believes. Until winter linseeds are launched, the crops area is unlikely to increase much beyond last years 62,000ha (153,000 acres).

Flea beetle, summer drought and the volatile market for linseed are all factors which need considering when choosing between the oilseed options, says Miss Potter. Industrial sowings, despite their low profitability, still have a place where growers prefer to see their land "cropped" rather than lying idle.


Gross margin estimates of spring crops in 1996 from various sources (£/ha)

BarleyBarleyWheatOSrapeOSrapeLinsd LinsdPeasBeans

(malt)(feed)(mill)(conv)(ind*)(conv) (ind*)

ADAS820695795640420590420620615

Andersons830-765716429635413571565

Cargill810-798721400573341640581

Dalgety798–719-619-632652

Semundo—708-610-608630

Sentry872–726-578-610642

Strutt & Parker864662785700441598381665660

Average832679786704423600398621621

(1995**691555640573417557367536542)

*On set-aside.

**From different sources.

Sowing for profit…picking the correct crop and variety could make all the difference. But risks and benefits need to be carefully assessed.

Tempting options need careful consideration. But malting barley seems a sound bet this spring, thanks to healthy-looking premiums.