18 August 1995

Scotland looks for fresh benchmark

Scotland needs an earlier look at new spring barley varieties or it stands to lose valuable markets, says one agronomist. Robert Harris reports

SPRING barley varieties that could suit the Scottish climate risk being lost in the drive for yield. Northern growers are being drawn into later maturing varieties, squeezing tight harvest windows and making markets nervous.

To stop the trend Scotland should screen promising national list varieties against its own maturity benchmark rather than relying on UK-wide national list information.

So says Huw Phillips of Perth-based Scottish Agronomy. "New candidates have to beat recommended variety yields to be listed. The most common way is to use later-maturing material to generate yield."

That may not matter south of the border. But later harvests push Scottish growers into a corner.

"There are three big problems. Maltsters get nervous about supplies, especially when approaching a difficult harvest. So they tend to buy some malting barley elsewhere before the Scottish harvest starts. That puts a potential limit on the domestic market.

"There is also a danger that barley will be cut while immature. If farmers cut above 20% moisture they tend to dry it themselves to avoid penalties. That increases the danger of it being harmed.

"Finally, the weather can close in rapidly in September. Mid-month is traditionally a time of strong winds and the risk of head loss can increase."

Costly process

Barley growers cannot turn to niche varieties as a solution. Evaluating malting potential is a long and costly process, so most maltsters lock in to recommended list varieties.

To overcome the problem, the Scottish recommended list needs to offer additional suitable varieties rather than relying on UK recommended list results, says Mr Phillips.

Promising candidates should be retained at national list level for Scottish evaluation, he believes. "Too much potentially useful material could be discarded at this stage in the search for UK-wide performers. We need some positive discrimination in favour of earliness to maintain it."

Older but still widely-grown early varieties like Prisma should stay on the list as a benchmark against which new material can be judged, he maintains. "Last year it performed well and stayed on. But it is susceptible to diseases, pre-germination and grain loss, which mark it down.

"If it goes, with the adoption of varieties like Cooper and Optic, other varieties like Derkado, which is already regarded as late, will eventually be classed as early. Keeping Prisma will help prevent this."