Lower seed cost and new varieties boost hybrid barley prospects

Will the arrival of two new varieties and a significant reduction in the seed price breathe new life into hybrid barley?

The news that Syngenta is dropping the price of its Hyvido seed has been welcomed by both growers and the seed trade.

While there’s no doubt that hybrid barley performs very well on many farms, the seed was proving to be just too expensive in some situations, says David Waite of Frontier Agriculture.

See also: Malting madness: Grow barley on heavy land

“Given the current economic climate and grain price, something needed to be done. So it’s really good to see that Syngenta has listened to the industry and responded to the financial pressures that farmers are under.”

Seed cost

The retail price has come down by £100/pack for this autumn, he reports. “One pack contains enough seed for 5ha. So Volume is now £495/pack, down from £595, and the two new varieties Bazooka and Belfry are down to £515/pack, from £615.”

Significantly, this brings the seed cost down to £100/ha, he points out. “That’s the level at which growers are prepared to go ahead. It should make hybrid barley a serious contender for a place in the rotation this year.”

Currently, hybrid barley accounts for 18% of the UK winter feed barley market. There are 65,000ha of the hybrid crop in the ground, out of a total of 370,000ha of winter barley – with more barley being grown in the east and south east of England than ever before.

New higher yielding varieties and the fact that many growers are looking to extend their rotations are behind this barley resurgence. But against that positive background, hybrid barley seed sales haven’t increased in the last two years.

“Barley has become more popular because it reduces pressure on the harvest window and spreads workloads, as well as providing an early entry for the following oilseed rape crop,” notes Mr Waite.

But his comments could apply to both hybrid and conventional winter barley, he acknowledges. “So hybrid barley must deliver other benefits, which we know it is more than capable of doing. These include more vigour, better scavenging ability, higher straw yield and competition against weeds.”

Growers looking at very tight gross margins across all the combinable crops will be weighing up their options carefully, agrees James Taylor-Alford of Syngenta, who recognises that current commodity prices are a challenge.

“Certainly, the margins look much narrower for 2015-16, and although there is an initial cost outlay with hybrids, the new seed cost will reduce the differential,” he notes.

However, he believes that hybrids have an advantage over conventional varieties in most respects, especially in more difficult growing seasons.

“Hybrids offer higher yields, bring rotational benefits and have an economic advantage in most farm situations,” he says. “Our work suggests that the tougher growing years are the ones where Hyvido varieties are an even better choice, as yield is still the key for profitability.”

New varieties

And for autumn 2015 there will be two new hybrid varieties to consider – both of which are candidates for recommendation later this year. Bazooka and Belfry have yields of 108%, giving them a 2% advantage over Volume, which has been on the HGCA Recommended List since 2009.

“Volume has shown what can be achieved with a hybrid,” stresses Mr Taylor-Alford. “It has been the highest yielding barley variety on the Recommended List in every one of the last seven years – no other variety has been able to beat its UK yield.”

Seed of both Bazooka and Belfry will be available for 2015 plantings, he confirms. “They offer improved agronomics and good grain quality, with the early maturity that hybrids are known for.”


Agronomist’s view

Growers should be aiming for yields of 9.5-10t/ha with hybrid barley, believes Jock Willmott of Strutt & Parker.

“To make it pay, it has to perform very well,” he says. “Otherwise, the economics look slightly tenuous.”

Hybrids are understandably popular with farmers for their big bold grain and bumper straw yield, he adds. “They can be pushed harder than conventional barley, but are cheaper to grow than wheat.”

Their spring vigour is noticeable and makes them competitive with blackgrass, he adds.

Mr Willmott advises drilling hybrids where two-row barleys are compromised, on more marginal sites. “They also offer greater drilling date flexibility, which is useful on heavy land.”


Snapshot: View from the farm

Charlton Park Farm, Wiltshire

Hybrid barley is fulfilling a vital logistics role at Charlton Park Farm, near Malmesbury in Wiltshire, where it is set to keep its place as the new cropping year approaches.

Having reintroduced winter barley into the rotation last year, in order to improve timeliness and simplify field operations, farm manager Robin Aird is pleased with the performance of Hyvido varieties on the farm’s brashy soil types.

“We’re doing well here if we achieve wheat yields of 8t/ha,” he says. “So getting an average yield of 9.2t/ha from hybrid barley in 2014 was above our expectations. We had budgeted on 7t/ha.”

Robin Aird

A further consideration for him is that second wheats can’t be grown successfully in most years. “Yields are usually shocking at around 5t/ha – so they’re not an option on this farm.”

Having made significant changes to the rotation, Mr Aird (pictured) has stopped growing linseed and beans as break crops and replaced them with both spring and winter barley.

“We’re now growing winter wheat, followed by spring barley, then winter barley and finally oilseed rape,” he says. “As well as giving us more flexibility with workloads, it has helped with a charlock issue and allowed us to use cultural control techniques for blackgrass.”

Another reason for bringing winter barley back is that all of the farm’s 1,200ha of cropping goes through one combine, he notes. “Before we made changes to the rotation, we’d be cutting linseed right at the end of the harvest period, just when we had plenty of other fieldwork that needed doing.”

With hybrid barley, that timescale moved forward to the middle of July, he recalls. “We’d finished combining it by 22 July last year. That allowed us to get a flush of blackgrass before we drilled the following oilseed rape crop, which still went into the ground in plenty of time.”

As the farm operates with one main tractor for cultivations and drilling, the new rotation has eliminated the bottleneck that used to occur at the harvest and crop establishment stages, he points out. “We’re running a streamlined machinery fleet, so it works well.”

He opted for Volume hybrid barley because it was the highest yielding winter barley variety on the Recommended List. “I was also impressed by its scavenging ability, which is needed on our very variable soils. And it forms a very thick canopy, which limits evaporation losses and helps to conserve soil moisture.”

It also allows him to drill winter barley 10 days later than he would with conventional barley, allowing an extra flush of blackgrass.

Any suppression of blackgrass from hybrid barley would be a bonus, he continues. “It is very vigorous, so it may have more than a shielding effect. But it’s too early to say.”

Mr Aird admits that margins for all barley crops look disappointing at current prices. “We tend to look at the whole farm margin. We’re getting higher yields and also have good markets for the straw, plus it provides an earlier entry for the oilseed rape.”

Hybrid barley seed costs are higher than conventional varieties, he acknowledges. “We were spending up to £145/ha, which is twice that of a conventional barley variety. So the price drop for this coming year is good news.”

However, it has proved cheaper to grow than wheat, especially when it comes to fungicides, he notes. “Providing we can continue to get higher yields, it should keep on delivering.

“In addition, there are new Hyvido varieties for this coming year, which should take yields on further.”


Hybrid barley verdict

Pros

  • New varieties take yields even higher
  • Early maturity reduces pressure at harvest compared with second wheat
  • Early entry for following oilseed rape crop
  • Offers more vigour and better scavenging ability over conventional winter barley
  • Benefits in difficult growing seasons

 Cons

  • Price of seed may no longer be a
  • Can’t farm save seed
  • Has to perform well to pay
  • Strong competition from conventional varieties, which high yields at less cost (although this has narrowed with the hybrid seed cost reduction)

Crops verdict

There has been much interest in winter feed barley, as farmers look for an alternative crop, especially instead of a second wheat. This has been driven in part by developments in breeding taking barley yields a step up, as well as being very competitive against grassweeds.

However, the success of hybrids has been hindered by the higher cost of seed and an issue with the Recommended List protocols, which has now been resolved. And the news that seed costs are being cut could see growers take another look at hybrid barley this coming autumn, trying out the new varieties.