11 November 2000

Rivals on tenterhooks

Excitement is building as our contenders await the results of this years malting barley challenge. Julia Knights hunts for clues to the winner.

RIGOROUS growing conditions gave our six contenders in this years spring malting barley contest a stiff challenge.

A wet spring hampering spray timings and exacerbating disease, followed by a lack of sunshine in July and the longest harvest for a decade should have put a dampener on yields and quality for our contenders. Did it?

Nitrogens certainly fell short of expectations for Norfolk contender Toby Sexton, of Bluestone Farm, whose crop achieved 1.5% compared with his 1.8% target. Mr Sexton reckons the new trifloxystrobin could have been the culprit. He did increase fertiliser N, but perhaps by not enough. "I still managed to get my premium with Dalgety at £80/t," he says triumphantly.

Mr Sexton is also pleased with yields, the highest his farm has ever seen at 7.27t/ha, and up nearly a whole tonne on his five-year average. "I put it down to Twist and getting the seed rate right – 289 plants/sq m on the early drilled crop and 273 plants/sq m on the later drilled," he explains.

Yields could have been even better if it had not been for a spot of sulphur deficiency. "Im putting all my N on as ammonium sulphate for next year," he says.

Another star performer in terms of yield was John Waterston at Chilton Manor Farm in Hants. An average of 7.2t/ha meant that Mr Waterston was up over a tonne on his five-year average. Quality was also good, averaging 1.6%N and screenings excellent, meeting contract demands from Scats and Dalgety and the top premium of our contenders – £87-90/t.

But good results hide the catchy conditions Mr Waterston experienced at harvest. "We started harvesting on 12 August but did not put away the combine until 10 days later. Moistures were quite high at 17%, so we had to dry," says Mr Waterston.

"The real surprise was yields from our spring sown crop which were on average 1.3t/ha better than our January sown crop, due to rhynchosporium and not being able to spray at the right time," admits Mr Waterston.

A comparatively dry harvest for James Milligan-Manby and his brother, Richard, at Manby Farms in Lincs, meant that only a quick blast of cool air was needed to dry their crop.

Yields were good at 6.9t/ha, up nearly three-quarters of a tonne on their five-year average. But the brothers struggled to get their target nitrogen of 1.75%, and had to settle for 1.5%N. "We put on an extra 20 units this year because nitrogens were so low last year – but even this wasnt enough," admits James Milligan-Manby. They blamed the rain showers in April for draining away much of their fertiliser.

Yields and quality were a disappointment for our other Lincolnshire grower, Colin Wright of C N Overton, and Essex grower Peter Hogsbjerg, of Magnolia House. Both put it down to a lack of sunshine and lashings of rain in spring. But despite low nitrogens, the eastern European export market is in their sights, which should secure them a decent price.

North of the border, three inches of rain in August followed by six inches of rain in September scuppered chances of an early harvest for our Scottish contender, Morgan Nicoll of Setonhill in East Lothian. "We only finished harvesting Optic early this month. It was very frustrating. We had to take half a day here and there whenever we could. At least the Terpal kept the crop upright and clean. But with moistures at 17%, it took us four days to dry it," complains Mr Nicoll.

Yields however were excellent at 7.78t/ha, up more than a third of a tonne on his five-year average compared to Prisma, his previous variety. "If only the sun had shone when we needed it, we might have improved yields even further, especially since Optic is supposed to have the yield advantage over Prisma," says Mr Nicoll. But quality and screenings were good, meeting the demands of his target whisky market admirably.

Mr Nicoll has the edge on yield but must be content to share the lead on quality (in terms of meeting contract demands) with Mr Waterston. But a question mark still hangs over market price because two of our contenders have yet to sell their crop.

But which contender will grab the winning net margin? The final swing of the pendulum will be down to fixed costs and inputs. Find out in our January issue when we unveil the champion.