Cut farm costs by replacing second wheat with barley

Winter barley has outperformed second wheat in a long-term trial, offering an average £255/ha higher gross margin in four of the past five years.

This advantage over wheat is in part down to high yields from the newer two-row conventional barleys from breeder KWS, which this year account for 67% of the total winter barley certified-seed market.

Breeding advances have also fuelled interest in the crop, as underlined by the latest AHDB figures, showing that the winter barley area to be harvested this summer is up 4% at 439,000ha.

Looking to next year, the low cereal and oilseed rape prices could see it rise further.

See also: Record wheat yield attempt slips up but lessons learned

“Growers are looking to reduce their costs plus some have given up on oilseed rape, so barley could be the answer this year,” says KWS product development manager John Miles.

“The variable costs for barley are 65-75% of wheat, which means winter barley can’t be ignored next season.”

Trial results

KWS has for the past five years been running a long-term rotation trial at the firm’s product development field near Fowlmere, Cambridgeshire. It has compared KWS two-row winter barley with the best second-wheat varieties at that time.

Varieties compared included second wheats Grafton, Diego, Duxford, Santiago and Oakley with Saffron, Cassia and more recently Glacier and Tower.

“Growers are looking to reduce their costs plus some have given up on oilseed rape, so barley could be the answer this year.”
John Miles, KWS

Results show that winter barley averaged 10.9t/ha while wheat was 9.8t/ha, says KWS commercial manager Julie Goult.

This translated to gross margins of £1,005/ha for wheat and £1,260 for barley (see table, below).

It’s not just the overall figure, she points to the consistency of results over the period.

“The only year barley didn’t come out on top was last season, which was an exceptionally good wheat year.”

In the other four years, there was a consistent advantage of barley over different growing seasons.

There are additional benefits, as Mr Miles highlights, such as the extra value of the straw and spreading the workload.

Winter barley offers an early entry for oilseed rape and work has shown a 0.5t/ha yield advantage with earlier established rape.

Managing the crop

Mr Miles says growers should treat it as they would a second wheat.

Timing depends on soil and location, although he urges growers to be cautious when drilling in the second week of October or later, as it is not as robust as wheat (see “Barley blueprint”, below).

“There is a saying that if a barley looks ropy in spring, then you will have a ropy barley crop.”

Mr Miles explains that is because the number of grains/ear is set at stem extension while for wheat it is not until the flag leaf.

Therefore early season agronomy is key, he says.

Barley blueprint

  • Date Optimum sowing date is mid-September until mid-October with quite a bit of regional variation.
  • Seed-bed Aim for a firm, fine seed-bed for speedy establishment and allow good residual chemistry activity.
  • Seed rate There is a big regional variation and is timing and seed-bed dependent. Target spring population is 300 plants/sq m. Therefore, start at 225-250/sq m in mid-September to drilling 300/sq m by the end of the month. Into October, will be 350-400/sq m depending on date and seed-bed.
  • Seed dressing For earlier drilling, use Deter (clothianidin) seed treatment for barley yellow dwarf virus. In low-risk situations, growers can use a single-purpose dressing.
  • Autumn weed control Use a pre- and post-emergence stacking strategy for grassweed control
  • Nutrition Push as hard as second wheats, so anything from 180-240kg/ha of nitrogen. Any P and K issues should be addressed.
  • Disease control A two-spray programme is adequate, but a three-spray approach does give the best yields in open seasons. A range of chemistry is available.
  • Growth regulation A chlormequat, triexapac-based plant growth regulator gives good base lodging control for fertile sites. Consider an ethephon + mepiquat follow-up in high lodging risk.

Barley and wheat margins and yields over five years








Wheat yield (t/ha)







Wheat gross margin (£/ha)







Barley yield (t/ha)







Barley gross margin (£/ha)