Spring wheat helps growers to beat blackgrass

Spring wheat is finding favour with growers struggling to control blackgrass, as many varieties can be drilled from the end of October through until April and with lower inputs than winter cereals.

This renewed interest is being driven by the need to kill blackgrass, believes Colin Lloyd, head of agronomy at distributor Agrii, who has been conducting trials with spring wheat for the past five years.

“It’s given us some nice surprises. We’ve achieved some very good yields, in the region of 8-9t/ha, from early spring sowings,” he says.

Mr Lloyd adds there is a fine line between success and failure with any spring-drilled crop, due to the weather. In a very dry spring, such as in 2011, average yields fell to just 4.5t/ha, he adds.

However, the flexibility in drilling dates for the crop is its main advantage.

“These flexi-wheats allow growers to avoid the blackgrass trap that comes with winter cropping by being able to delay drilling, as well as letting them drill when the conditions are right,” Mr Lloyd adds.

Seed rates are important because the crop doesn’t tiller like a winter wheat.

“Remember that you are trying to end up with 600 ears/sq m. If you are drilling in January 325 seeds/sq m is fine, but by April you need 400 seeds/sq m,” he says.

With spring drilling, growers also need to remember that it’s a short-cycle crop where everything happens very quickly, says Mr Lloyd.

“Put 50kg/ha of nitrogen in the seed-bed and then top up with the remaining 110kg/ha by the three-leaf stage. If it’s a Group 1 or 2 variety with the chance of a premium, then you’ll need another 40kg/ha at the flag-leaf stage,” he says.

If the crop races out of the ground, Mr Lloyd warns that it can pick up mildew very early in its development.

“Keep an eye on it. You may find you need to apply a mildewicide and some manganese at mid- to late tillering, just to keep it moving,” he says.

Work done at Agrii’s Stow Longa site, near Huntingdon, last year showed the value of spring wheat, both for its financial contribution and its effect on blackgrass populations.

Two crops of Solstice winter wheat, drilled at the end of September and the beginning of November, were compared with a spring wheat crop drilled at the beginning of April.

The September-drilled crop yielded just 4.82t/ha, showing the penalty of a heavy blackgrass burden, while the winter wheat drilled in November did better, giving an average yield of 7.76t/ha.

The spring wheat yielded 6.46t/ha, and growing costs were more than £100/ha less for the spring crop, at £327/ha. The spring crop needed less nitrogen, a simpler fungicide programme and fewer plant growth regulators, while the winter wheat cost £441/ha in inputs.

The final margins were £917/ha for the November-drilled Solstice, £739/ha for the spring wheat and £402/ha for the early-drilled Solstice.

“But we also recorded the level of blackgrass seed return. There were no blackgrass ears found in the spring wheat, so any seed return would have been negligible,” he says.

In contrast, the early September-drilled Solstice had 212 blackgrass ears/sq m, while the November-drilled crop had 18 ears.

Growing a Group 1 breadmaking spring wheat variety such as Mulika allows growers to benefit from its premium-earning potential, he adds.

“All things considered, the figures for spring wheat stack up reasonably well. There really is an alternative to forcing a winter wheat crop in early and then having to spend a fortune on herbicides,” Mr Lloyd says.

His colleague David Neale points out that growers were pleasantly surprised with yields from later drilling dates last year.

“It opened their eyes to the possibilities with spring or alternative wheats. Newer varieties offer better performance and millers are looking for locally-grown wheats,” he says.

Mulika is of most interest, he says, as it offers yield, quality and disease resistance, but there are more late autumn- or spring-sown varieties in the pipeline.

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