Winter barley yields have been extremely variable this year, with crops in East Anglia worst affected by the spring drought, and yielding as little as 1.5t/ha on light land. However, further west and north, yields were much better, raising the UK average to about 6.1t/ha; around 6% below the five-year mean.
Quality was similarly variable, with samples from light land crops having very high nitrogen contents. However, specific weights were high, with excellent grain fill pushing them to 66-69kg/hl.
As Crops went to press, spring barley harvest was only about 50% complete, with much of Scotland still to cut. Yield patterns were similar to winter barley, with heavier crops in the North likely to boost mean yields close to the five-year average of 5.3t/ha.
Hybrid winter varieties had done particularly well, with Volume continuing to top the HGCA’s Recommended List in results to 17 August, scoring 116% of the mean yield. The candidate hybrid, Element, scored 108% and performed especially well in at the Midlothian trial site, at 128%.
Retriever, the top approved conventional barley, slipped to third place at 112%, pipped by the candidate six-row conventional variety, Meridian at 115%. However, its specific weight was even lower than Retriever’s, which could be a concern for farmers, said Recommended List manager Simon Oxley. Matros, a two-row conventional candidate, had an amazing year in Scotland, scoring 132% of the mean yield at Midlothian and 111% on average.
In the malting sector, Flagon and Cassata shadowed former performance at 100% and 99%, respectively. Candidates Venture and Archer looked promising, with scores of 106% and 103%, but malting quality remained to be proven.
The poor growing season caused havoc with malting barley quality, with late rains and low yields resulting in very high nitrogen contents, said Stuart Shand, director at Gleadell Agriculture.
Less than a third of winter malting barley samples were testing below 1.85% nitrogen (as on 26 August), with almost half of the crop exceeding 1.95%. “Maltsters have altered their specifications and taken as high a nitrogen as they can, but they now need low nitrogen barley to bring that average down,” he said.
Many had been taking barley in at up to 2% nitrogen, but would not commit to buy forward at that level. “There is also quite a big requirement for barley for real ale that is below 1.6% nitrogen, and only 5% of the samples we’ve tested can meet that.”
Overall, winter barley was probably averaging 1.95% nitrogen, compared to 1.85% in a normal year, said Mr Shand. East Anglia had been worst affected, averaging 2.02%, with the South enjoying better yields and nitrogen contents of 1.83%.
Spring barley was more promising, with Tipple averaging 1.76% nitrogen across the UK. In East Anglia levels rose to 1.97% on average, with Scotland coming in at 1.4-1.8%. “But they’ve had such horrific weather that the barley is looking washed out – the crops won’t take much more rain on them.”
Quality of both winter and spring barley was generally good, although secondary growth meant there were a lot of green grains. “A little bit of pre-germination has shown up in a few crops, because the first ears were ripe, but the secondary tillers weren’t.”
Seed crops had also been affected by the dry spring, with 40% less winter malting seed available than last year, said Mr Shand. “The vast majority of seed crops are grown in East Anglia, which was the worst hit area. It’s a massive problem; we are going to struggle to get enough seed produced to fill demand for the 2012 crop – which will have a knock-on effect for next year’s seed production as well.”
With such tight supplies, malting barley premiums had risen to £40-50/t over feed for winter barley, with springs at about £55/t. Samples testing below 1.6% were commanding a further £10-15 on top of that. “However, demand for beer looks to be down because of the poor summer, and at some point the maltsters will buy enough in to become comfortable, and premiums will then come down.”
Prices for the 2012 harvest were already attractive, at about £30/t over feed for winter barley and £40/t over for springs, he added.
• Hybrid winter barleys yielded best
• Good quality spring barley in Scotland
• Poor yields in much of East Anglia
• High nitrogen problems in malting barley