27 March 1999

TEACH IN:

spring barley

New to spring barley? Gilly Johnson visits the classroom to find out what lessons the freshers ought to learn about spring varieties

LESSON one: dont try and beat the experienced, specialist malting barley growers at their own game. If youre new to the crop, aim for yield rather than the highest quality, says Huw Phillips of Scottish Agronomy.

Hes well qualified to give such advice – many of his Scottish clients have been growing top quality spring malting varieties for generations. But hes not just trying to discourage the competition. There are two reasons for Mr Phillips position.

First, the troubled malting market. It can be fickle, as the past few seasons have demonstrated to growers cost. "Malting demand isnt getting any bigger and may even be contracting slightly," he warns. "New growers trying to break into this outlet are likely to be disappointed – they should remember that the specialist malting producers tend to stay with the crop year after year, and theyll be the ones who collect the top premiums."

Quality standards

Second, the difficulty meeting the high quality standards required. Its likely that much of the extra spring barley has been drilled into land that isnt best suited to quality malting production, he suggests. For example, where spring barley has been sown into heavy land as a damage limitation exercise after wet weather put a halt to drilling winter cereals. "Heavy, waterlogged land does not make for a good start."

For top quality malting premiums, the hazards ahead include:

&#8226 Grain nitrogen. "Achieving the low grain nitrogen required for the best premiums could be difficult on a site where residual nitrogen is high, either because of soil type or rotational position."

&#8226 Screenings. "With a 2.5mm screen, your target is for 90% of grain to be retained. Penalties can be severe if you dont meet this."

&#8226 Splitting/skinning. The appearance of the grain as it comes out through the combine is important; skinned, cracked or split grains can lead to rejection, says Mr Phillips. "You should also watch fusarium, as this is critical for brewing outlets. Some varieties such as Chariot are more susceptible than others. The weather also affects grain splitting."

Yield counts

"Given these difficulties, my advice is to go for yield first and foremost. You can budget ahead with some confidence, because theres a floor provided by the intervention feed barley price, which is £8/t ahead of wheat for November." If grain does ultimately attract a low grade malting premium, perhaps for lager export markets where higher grain nitrogen is accepted, that would be the icing on the cake, suggests Mr Phillips. Check with your local merchant as to potential outlets.

DONT skimp. Give the crop its full quota of nitrogen, insists Mr Phillips. For early sowings, half would normally go on in the seedbed, but those who are drilling later in April should put all the nitrogen on early – either in the seedbed or pre-emergence.

Cutting seed rate can help reduce screenings, he says. "But in Scotland, we dont risk low seed rates, because early crop growth can be slow. So our target would be 400 seeds/sq m for most varieties. This may vary slightly with seedbed conditions and sowing date, but not dramatically. Low tillering variety Prisma is the only exception, where wed drill between 450-500 seeds per square metre."

But too high a seed rate could lead to dense, smaller tillers. "Its easy to make a mistake if you dont know the thousand grain weight."

Advice for Scotland from Simon Phillips of New Farm Crops – the leading spring barley breeder – is for 400-425 seeds/sq m for Chalice, 400-440 seeds/sq m for Optic, and 375-400 seeds/sq m for Landlord. English growers should cut these rates by 10%, he suggests.

Beware seedbed conditions if putting spring barley back into a rotation which has become dominated by winter cropping, says Huw Phillips. "Often capping problems were why spring cereals were discontinued in the first place – and those wont have gone away. A wise precaution would be not to roll after drilling."

After crops have emerged, spring barley grows more rapidly than winter varieties. And a good supply of trace elements such as manganese, magnesium and copper is needed to power this growth spurt, because spring cereals cant put roots down quickly enough to find nutrients in the subsoil.

One suggestion is to use a combined seed and fertiliser drill, because the fertiliser lowers the pH around the grain which helps release micronutrients. In high risk sites, use two applications of foliar manganese, one at three to five leaf stage (GS13-15), with a follow up during tillering.

KEY diseases to watch out for with spring barley are rhynchosporium and early mildew – not forgetting last years mysterious newcomer, ramularia. But the dilemma for Scottish growers is that if you control these well – perhaps with new chemistry – then you risk delaying harvest.

Thats not such an issue for southern growers, which does make spray decisions less complicated. The big question is whether or not to spend extra money on new chemistry. Trials data for spring barley is limited, because the focus has been on the winter cereals.

However, consensus amongst our experts is that the new chemistry is a good investment – but not for all varieties. Scottish trials funded by New Farm Crops show a worthwhile response to a two-spray sequence of 0.5kg/ha cyprodinil (Unix) at late tillering (GS29) followed by 0.75l/ha of Landmark (kresoxim-methyl with epoxiconazole) at approaching flag leaf stage (GS35-37). A yield boost of about 1t/ha (8cwt/acre) as compared with a Mistral/Opus (fenpropimorph/ epoxiconazole) sequence was seen for all varieties bar Prisma. But Optic, Chariot, Static and Chalice all benefited from the new chemistry.

As a bonus, the strobs do appear to eliminate ramularia. But its the excellent rhynchosporium activity offered by Unix, together with early mildew control, that is significant.

"Screenings were halved in this trial, and grain nitrogens were all within a malting range of between 1.62-1.69," says Simon Phillips of New Farm Crops. More research is being funded this year.

CHLORMEQUAT is no longer approved on spring barley – but trinexapac-ethyl (Moddus) was approved on the crop last year, up to the latest application timing at second node (GS32).

New growers should decide what they are trying to achieve with growth regulator – either tiller manipulation and root enhancement, or lodging reduction – and choose a strategy to suit, says Rod Dawson of Novartis. Trials data is not extensive for this crop, but a good option for encouraging root growth and tillering – helpful for late drilled spring barley – might be 0.1-0.15l/ha of Moddus applied at between two to four leaves. A reduction in screenings, enlarged root diameter and a 0.1-0.2t/ha (1-1.5cwt/acre) increase in yield is indicated by company trials.

Lodging reduction might be a worry when pushing for high yield. Mr Dawson suggests 0.4 litre/ha of Moddus at stem extension (GS30). For this strategy, growers might expect a yield response of 0.39t/ha (3cwt/acre) in the absence of lodging – according to results from nine sites last year. At £80/t for barley, that gives a £12/ha (£5/acre) margin over cost.

IF YOU are growing spring barley for yield, then push yields above a minimum of 4.5t/ha (1.8t/acre), suggests to Nick Myers of the ProCam Group.

Data from a proportion of the companys client base is analysed to show real farm performance. Assuming the business is already lean and mean, with low fixed costs of £370/ha (£150/acre) and a variable cost outlay of £175/ha (£71/acre), then the breakeven point for spring barley is at the 4.5t/ha mark, with barley priced in at between £55-75/t.

Any yield above this 4.5t/ha figure generates a positive net margin. Fall below, and you are losing money. For premium malting barley, that minimum yield target is less demanding, dropping to about 3.5t/ha (1.4t/acre).

Within the ProCam sample, the top 25% of growers are already achieving the required yield. Performance last year for this group was 6.11t/ha (3.5t/acre) – almost 0.9t/ha (17cwt/acre) better than the average.

How did they achieve it? Not by spending more on the crop, says Mr Myers – but by spending differently. The top growers are investing in trace elements, fungicides and seed, and spending less on fertiliser.