26 June 1998

Spring malting good option on light land

SPRING malting barley sits comfortably in the rotation at Lower Rodhuish Farm, Minehead, Somerset, where Chris Thomas grows mainly winter wheat and oats, with spring rape and linseed as breaks, and runs a 60-cow suckler herd.

The 316ha (780-acre) family farm on the edge of Exmoor runs to 274m (900ft) above sea level. Annual rainfall of 965-1270mm (38-50in) provides quite a challenge. "We had 11in in August last year," comments Mr Thomas.

Low input spring barley helps spread the two-man workload and its high quality straw is much appreciated by local hill farmers, he says. "We sometimes use it to undersow grass, which further reduces inputs and increases malting quality. It is also quite nice to have some stubbles in the winter for the birds. They are environmentally welcome."

Until the arrival of barley yellow mosaic virus, winter variety Pipkin was the malting mainstay. Now Alexis, which he describes as a reliable spring variety always in demand by maltsters, has largely taken over, though some mosaic-resistant winter sown Epic is also grown for the stock.

The fact that the mainly light sandy loam is unsuitable for milling wheat makes malting barley a good option, he adds. Grain nitrogen target is 1.6, but for the past two years levels have been 1.3 and 1.4 at an average yield of 6t/ha (2.45t/acre).

The one downside to the crop, where quality is all, is that harvesting can clash with the wheat. "If it is right we will always pull out of the wheat and pile into the barley." Accurate combine setting is crucial, he adds. "I do this personally."

That said Mr Thomas is happy to rely on a contractor to plough and press the easy-working land. "We cannot do it any cheaper." Cationic exchange soil analysis, on the advice of long-standing agronomist David Croxton, combined with occasional applications of nutrients like Goldphos, a 0:20:20 compound with added sulphur, is a relatively new venture to try to maintain the soils natural fertility. "We know we are low in sulphur," says Mr Thomas.

Early March sowing, with a one-pass Amazone reciprocating harrow and drill combination, is plenty soon enough, he maintains. "If we go in February we can get capping."

Farm-saved, Raxil (tebuconazole + triazoxide) treated seed is drilled quite heavily according to thousand grain weight to counter bird damage. "We get a lot of rooks round here."

Nitrogen, up to a maximum of 80kg/ha (64 units/acre) according to previous cropping, goes on in the seed-bed or shortly afterwards. Soil mineral analysis may eventually be considered to fine-tune dressings. "But on our light ground there is not a lot of inherent nitrogen."

Rhynchosporium, not surprisingly, is usually the main disease and merits tackling early, Mr Thomas believes. "Fungicides are improving all the time and we hope to get away with a single spray." This year 0.5 litres/ha of Colstar (fenpropimorph + flusilazole) applied through a Lely Autoglide sprayer at the end of April still appeared to be holding diseases at bay in early June. &#42

Farming on the edge of Exmoor is not without difficulties, says Chris Thomas. High rainfall and lightish land which caps easily mean he is no hurry to sow in the spring.

CHRIS THOMAS

&#8226 High rainfall farm.

&#8226 Alexis in demand.

&#8226 Soil fertility focus.

&#8226 Rhynco main enemy.