Spring switch helps cut blackgrass burden

Many cereal growers forced into growing spring barley this year will stick with the crop after seeing good yields and better blackgrass control, a new survey shows.

The spring barley area rose sharply this year after a wet 2013 autumn hit drilling and, while there was a swing back to winter cropping this autumn, some were impressed by the spring crop.

In a survey of 24 growers from Hampshire to Yorkshire, 15 said they will definitely be growing spring barley again next year, and only three will not.

The survey by agrichemical and seeds group Syngenta was conducted to see how successful a switch to spring barley was for blackgrass control and what effect it had on profitability.

South Lincolnshire grower Will Gilman (pictured), who took part in the survey, says spring cereals were as profitable – if not more so – than autumn-sown ones due to lower inputs.

Will Gilman

On his light limestone brash soils, spring barley outperformed its winter counterpart, while on his heavier land 6.25t/ha of spring wheat with a premium matched the profits of a 7.3t/ha second wheat.

“Last year we were forced by nature to try spring cropping but that proved successful in helping with blackgrass and brome control so we will continue with it next spring,” he says.

This year, spring barley at 7.3t/ha outyielded winter barley at 7t/ha on his 580ha predominantly arable land at The Grange, Pickworth, some four miles north of Stamford.

He normally grows about 20ha of spring barley, but last spring he increased the area to 120ha of spring barley and 100ha of spring wheat to replace slug-damaged winter wheat and barley.

These autumn-sown crops were left untouched until a glyphosate spray in mid-April and then the ground was direct drilled the following day, which helped to maintain moisture in the subsequent dry weather.

No grassweed herbicide was used on the spring barley and although some blackgrass did come through, it was at a low levels, Mr Gilman adds.

Controlling blackgrass in the rotation

For this spring, he is planned to grow 120ha of spring cereals split equally between barley and wheat and considers this spring option a useful tool in the rotation to control blackgrass.

Chris Goss, an agronomist with distributor ProCam, says some of his growers in Berkshire, Wiltshire and Oxfordshire tried spring barley and saw good success at controlling blackgrass.

He says one of his growers had one the worst blackgrass field in his area and after a year of spring barley, the subsequent crop of winter wheat showed the grassweed well under control.

“It is one of the weapons we have left to control blackgrass, and some who moved to spring barley were surprised at how clean their crops were as a result,” he says.

Iain Hamilton, field technical manager at Syngenta who co-ordinated the survey, says one of the key conclusions was that most spring barley growers had achieved decent yields with lower costs.

Spring barley yields ranged from 6t/ha to more than 8t/ha in the survey and led to generally lower variable costs of about £100-150/ha, or the equivalent of up to the price of 1t of grain.

“All bar one were pleased by the level of blackgrass control, and one or two said it had a positive effect on gross margins,” he says.

The switch to spring drilling allowed more time to deal with a big autumn flush of blackgrass by cultivations and spraying with glyphosate, while spring barley competed well with what blackgrass remained.

Mr Hamilton says spring barley growers were able to halve their costs on grassweed herbicides, cut nitrogen rates and use two fungicide sprays rather than four with winter wheat.

The main advice for this spring was not to force the crop and drill in early February if conditions were not quite right, while a delay into March would allow more time for blackgrass control.

Some growers on lighter land aimed for a malting premium for their spring barley crops, while those on heavier land simply went for high yields.

Syngenta has a number of leading spring barley varieties such as Propino, Tipple, Quench and the recently recommended Sanette, which is the highest overall yielder on the HGCA Recommended List.

The area of spring barley in the UK rose sharply in 2013 by 46% to 902,000ha, but with a big swing back to autumn drilling due to good weather in September and October, the spring barley area is forecast to fall back to 534,000ha next year, according to the HGCA’s Early Bird survey.

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