Tips on getting the most from your spring cropping

Spring crops are cheaper to grow, help to spread workloads and provide much-needed weed control opportunities, claim the enthusiasts.

They’ve also benefited enormously from plant breeding advances in recent years, with new varieties often bringing yield, agronomic and quality advantages to a dynamic sector.

The sceptics, however, are quick to point out that spring crops are more risky, still have a lower yield potential and can result in a prolonged or later harvest.

Furthermore, a limited choice of agrochemicals makes them more prone to failure.

Whichever way you look at it, there’s little doubt that spring crops are set to make a greater impact on UK farms this year (see box on planting predictions). Political, agronomic and economic influences are forcing a change in rotations, with increasingly unpredictable weather patterns having a bearing too.

Seed-bed quality

Regardless of your choice of spring crop this year, it must be drilled into a good seed-bed, agree our roundtable panel of crop experts.

Their top tip is to avoid planting into cold, waterlogged soils and sub-standard seed-beds, adding that it’s a misconception that you have to drill early for the highest yields.

“Be patient,” urges Ron Granger, arable technical manager of Limagrain. “The crop needs to get growing straight away, which means it should be drilled as soils are getting warmer. For that, you need the best tilth you can get, as well as some moisture.”

A lack of tillering ability in spring crops is just one of the reasons why seed-bed conditions are so important, he stresses. “They don’t tiller much, so you need to get the best plant population you can. And in favourable conditions, they often come under pest attack, which rapid growth can help them to deal with.”

For most crops, that means starting to drill when soils are at around 8C and rising, which may not be until the end of March, says Hutchinsons technical manager Dick Neale.

“There is an obvious exception to this, which is spring wheat,” he acknowledges. “Some of the alternative spring wheat varieties can be drilled in the late autumn, from the end of October onwards, but much will depend on your reason for growing it.”

Their flexibility is a real selling point, he remarks, but the shorter growing season choices give more opportunity to make good use of stale seed-beds.

Otherwise, spring beans get drilled first in the spring, often as soon as early February, he comments. “They have a bigger seed and can be drilled deeper. But they don’t have to go in until mid-March, so there’s no reason to jam them into a cold, wet seed-bed.”

Growing interest

Both agronomic and policy reasons are behind the upsurge in interest in spring cereals and pulses, notes Mr Neale. “The three-crop rule, the introduction of EFAs, lower commodity prices and grassweed problems are all changing the way that growers are thinking about rotations.

“Where grassweeds are a main concern, there’s a real opportunity to get things back on track with spring crops.”

Alan Hendry of Daltons Seeds points out that the longer drilling windows of spring crops give growers an opportunity to manage blackgrass populations, by using stale seed-beds and other cultural control techniques, to get on top of an increasing problem by preventing seed return.

“The question that many growers have is whether they should establish a cover crop before a spring crop,” he reports. “And that will depend on the extent of the blackgrass problem, as well as any other requirements such as soil structure improvement.”

Mr Neale highlights trial results from the company’s blackgrass site at Brampton, which suggest that the worst fields shouldn’t be cover cropped at first. “Now we’re into our third year of trying to manage the situation, we can use a cover crop. But the weed numbers were simply too high at first to make it work.”

Heavy land sites can be especially challenging, all three agree, adding that they may need a different approach.

Spring barley

For spring barley, which is the most competitive of the spring cereal crops, seed rates of 350-400 seeds/sq m will be required on heavy land, believes Mr Neale.

“With the right seed-bed, you won’t run out of moisture,” he points out. “And you have to allow some effect of slugs and blackgrass on establishment.”

He advises growers to push it for yield, as it is difficult to stop the heavy land feeding it. “Allow the yield to dilute the protein – you may find that it meets the malting specification.”

Seed-bed preparations should be completed in the autumn, so that soil doesn’t have to be moved in the spring. “In mid-March, you just touch the soil with the drill. That way, you won’t lose any moisture and you won’t get another flush of blackgrass.”

The correct seed rate is worth one herbicide application, he notes. “You’re aiming for a plant population of 300-350 plants/sq m, so it would be unwise to go any lower than 350 seeds.”

Variety choice will depend on the intended market, remarks Mr Granger. “There are also geographical constraints – if you’re below the M4, you’ll be aiming for the export market.”

Otherwise, there are brewing and distilling outlets, as well as the feed market. “A new phenomenon is that the brewing varieties are now matching feed varieties on yield. So there’s every reason to opt for one of the malting types, even if you’re growing it for feed.”

New on the HGCA Recommended List from Limagrain this year are Sienna, Octavia, Olympus and Deveron, joining the company’s established varieties Odyssey, Concerto and Belgravia.

“The market needs dual-purpose varieties like Concerto and Odyssey – those that are suitable for brewing and malt distilling, as they offer the best chance of finding a market,” points out Mr Granger. “For the same reason, it also needs non-GN varieties.”

Spring wheat

Spring wheat has the widest drilling window, but it isn’t as competitive as spring barley, notes Alan Hendry.

“Having said that, you can still get 80% control of blackgrass by drilling it in the spring,” he comments.

New varieties offer higher yields and better performance, he adds. “You need to aim for 325 plants/sq m, which means a seed rate of 350 seeds/sq m.”

Market leader Mulika brings the chance of a Group 1 premium, and seed sales reflect its popularity, he adds. “It’s the benchmark. Millers like it and it’s established in the market.”


Combining peas are another crop that can be drilled later and will benefit the most from a warm seed-bed with adequate moisture.

Any spring emerging blackgrass will need to be controlled, while seed rates should be kept up to between 75-100 seeds/sq m, depending on the pea type.

“The aim is for 70-80 plants. In a dry year, you need a thicker crop. Remember too that you may not be drilling until April on heavy land,” states Mr Hendry.

Their inherent fertility benefit means that most growers will drill a winter wheat crop after peas. “But consider oilseed rape too,” says Mr Neale. “It grows very well following a pea crop and you won’t need to add autumn nitrogen.

Spring beans

Keep the plant population up with spring beans, advises Mr Granger.

“It’s all about plant numbers with beans,” he says. “The last thing you want is a crop with gaps – the blackgrass will simply exploit them and the crop is not competitive enough to cope.”

That means 45-50 seeds/sq m, he adds. “There can be a temptation to put them in too early, but where blackgrass is an issue you should wait for the first flush.”

Pale hilum varieties which are free from bruchid beetle damage are suitable for the export market.

Spring oats

A niche crop, oat plantings have fallen after two bumper years and ample supplies on the open market.

They can be competitive, notes Mr Hendry, so growers should have a target plant population of 375 plants/sq m.

“There aren’t many herbicide options for use in oats, so it’s worth putting plenty of seed on. If you get the population right, they’ll do much of the weed control work for you.”

What about gross margins?

There is a stronger incentive to plant spring barley and spring milling wheat if gross margins are considered in isolation, although all spring crops are showing falls from last year, according to figures from HGCA.

However, the uncertainty surrounding quality premiums has to be considered at the start of the growing season, as harvest results will dictate whether both of these crops achieve the highest values.

A malting premium equivalent to that in four of the past five years would keep malting barley as the top ranked option. However, the gross margins on milling wheat will be particularly sensitive to the premium – if they are based on the 2014-15 premiums to date, the crop becomes more attractive than malting barley.

Using figures from December 2014 to calculate gross margins for a range of spring crops, HGCA has looked at projected gross margins, taking industry standard data on yields and costs, with forward price assessments including estimated contract prices.

As a result, malting and feed barley, inclusive of straw values, have moved up to first and third in the rankings, with some of the smallest year-on-year declines in gross margins. These projections take into account an additional 40kg/ha K application for barley grown for grain alone and a £58/t straw value.

In second and fourth places are milling and feed wheat, followed by combining peas and spring oats.

Spring beans, which have seen an increase in output per hectare, have also seen seed prices rise, so they don’t progress up the order, despite market demand.

Spring oilseed rape remains at the bottom of the rankings. Linseed, which matches spring beans, has more technical and agronomic challenges, requiring growers with specialist skills.

Both linseed and oilseed rape are more difficult to establish in the spring, now that the neonicotinoid seed treatments have gone, points out Mr Hendry.

“Agronomically, there are some advantages from growing linseed,” he says. “It can be drilled later, it is an effective soil conditioner, it reduces slug numbers and the price is keeping up.”

On the downside, it isn’t competitive, he admits, making it a non-starter where blackgrass is a problem.

 Projected gross margins






Gross margin

Nov 15 price (£/t)

Yield (t/ha)

Gross margin (£/t)

Gross margin (rank)

Change from last year (%)

Sp milling wheat






Sp feed wheat






Sp feed barley (+straw)






Sp feed barley (-straw)






Sp malting barley (+straw)






Sp malting barley (-straw)   






Sp milling oats






Sp oilseed rape






Sp linseed






Combining peas (blue)






Sp beans (human cons)






Our expert panel 

expertsAlan Hendry is seed sales manager at Daltons Seeds, an independent family-owned business with its base at Eye, Peterborough.

Dick Neale is technical manager with agrochemical distributor and input supply company Hutchinsons, which has 180 agronomists working across the country.

Ron Granger is arable technical manager with Limagrain, the fourth largest plant breeding and seed supply company in the world.

Spring crop plantings

According to the HGCA’s early bird survey of farmer’s planting intentions, spring barley will rise by 9% this year, taking the total area to 713,000ha.

If that happens, the spring barley area will be 7% higher than the five year average.

Also going up are pulses, which are expected to show a 24% increase to 171,000ha – the largest area of pulse crops since 2010.

The survey also showed that fallow land is expected to increase by 18%, to 189,000ha. Some of this, however, may be drilled in the spring, now that CAP Reform has been clarified. Even so, it reflects that the desire to drill every hectare is not as strong as it was.

Case study: Russell McKenzie, Huntingdon

Russell-McKenzieSpring crops and heavy clay soils make strange bedfellows, admits Russell McKenzie, who has recently become the HGCA’s Monitor Farm on the Cambridgeshire/Bedfordshire border.

While winter wheat is still the dominant crop on the 766ha that form John Sheard Farms near Huntingdon, spring cropping has increased from 7.5% to 22% of the area and winter barley has been introduced as well, he reveals.

“Like many heavy land arable units, we were growing two wheats followed by oilseed rape,” says Mr McKenzie. “But we’ve made significant changes in the last couple of years and rotation is a key consideration now.”

The main reason for the changes was a blackgrass problem, he admits. “Blackgrass was becoming a huge challenge. The chemistry wasn’t working as well as it used to and we suspected that our farming system was making the situation worse.”

There is also a question mark over the future of oilseed rape on the farm, he acknowledges. “It isn’t a cheap crop to grow anymore and it doesn’t always provide the cleaning opportunity that it used to.”

He admits that the neonicotinoid ban and lower commodity prices are also contributing to his scrutiny of the crop, which has to compete with others to hold its place. “We’ve gone back to growing some conventional oilseed rape varieties this year, for their lower seed costs.”

So spring crops are being included and assessed for their suitability to the farm. They are also providing an opportunity for Mr McKenzie to look at the use of cover crops, both to improve soil structure and moisture uptake, as well as to help with blackgrass control and spread workloads.

Spring beans were the first new crop to be introduced, he recalls. “We’ve got on very well with them for the last three years. They’ve been consistent across seasons and don’t seem to mind our heavy ground.”

This year, he has 87.5ha of spring beans in the ground and is growing both Vertigo and Fanfare. A three-year average yield of 5.45t/ha means that they are holding their own, as well as bringing fertility benefits for following crops.

“All spring crops are more risky in a dry season,” he comments. “But that hasn’t been an issue for us in recent years and they’ve established well.”

He also has 44ha of spring wheat, which is now almost 6% of the farmed area. Mulika and Belepi are being grown, either for their premium earning potential or ability to help suppress blackgrass.

“We can put a cover crop in and spray it off before drilling in the spring,” he explains. “We’re trying different combinations, based on phacelia, vetches, peas, linseed, safflower, sunflower and buckwheat, at a cost of around £32/ha. It’s early days.”

In addition, some 38ha of spring barley, all Propino, is in the ground this year. “We’re looking at it. It is the most competitive of the spring crops, so it could be very useful against blackgrass.”

Otherwise, hybrid winter barley is being grown in the second wheat position, to add to grassweed control.

John Sheard Farms

  • Spring cropping increased from 7.5 to 22% of total area
  • Spring beans, spring wheat and spring barley
  • Ground overwintered with cover crops

Case study: Mark Edgecombe, Dorset

maize harvest

©Tim Scrivener

Velcourt farm manager Mark Edgecombe has up to nine different crops in the ground at any one time, with 1,494ha of cropping over a number of farms stretching across 20 miles.

Local markets have had a considerable influence on recent cropping changes, he explains, adding that the business is also trying to protect itself from volatility and take advantage of opportunities offered by niche or specialist crops.

“Spring cropping helps to even out the workload peaks and troughs on a business of this size, without losses in efficiency,” points out Mr Edgecombe.

“It also has a role in meeting our varied environmental obligations. It allows us to make good use of over-wintered stubbles, optimise our use of organic manures and reduce our reliance on bagged nitrogen.”

Spring barley is grown for malting on the chalkland sites, where it has always had a place in the rotation, he says. “We can achieve the malting specification on these soils and we have the export market on our doorstep.”

Propino is his mainstay variety, as it is fully approved for brewing use, but potential brewing varieties KWS Irina and Sanette will be tested on the farm in 2015.

A new spring crop, ahiflower, is being introduced this year. It will be grown on heavier land, alongside spring barley, replacing some of the oilseed rape.

“Our autumn-sown oilseed rape comes under enormous grazing pressure from game birds,” notes Mr Edgecombe. “The ahiflower will help with that, as it is drilled in April. It will also allow us to lengthen our rotation and reduce the amount of oilseed rape we grow.”

The ahiflower, which produces an omega-3 rich oil, is being grown on contract and will be drilled in April, once soil temperatures reach 10-12C.

Grain and forage maize has also featured heavily at Woodsford Farms for the last six years.

Rising demand from local dairy farms and anaerobic digesters has made the economic returns attractive, as well as allowing the business to diversify away from volatile grain markets and make good use of existing silage clamps.

“The arrival of the three crop rule has also meant that maize has become the third crop on some of our units,” he continues.

On most occasions, the maize is followed by winter wheat. “But nothing is set in stone and it depends on the season and commodity prices. There’s always the option to grow maize again, or establish grass behind it.”

The business’s location means that plentiful supplies of digestate and farmyard manures are available.

“Having spring crops in the rotation gives us another window for applying organic manures,” he points out. “We start planting spring barley towards the end of February, but with maize and ahiflower going in as well, we will be drilling through until May.”

Challenges include getting the following crops established in time, he admits.

“We put oilseed rape in after spring barley, which used to be straightforward as there was a two week interval. But we’re finding that crops are staying greener for longer now, which can cause delays, especially as we bale all the straw.”

The same issue can arise with winter wheat after maize. “We’ve always managed it, but it may make sense to grow another maize crop instead, using cover crops over the winter.”

Woodsford Farms

  • Up to nine different crops
  • Spring cropping helps to even out the workload peaks
  • Crops include spring barley, ahiflower, grain and forage maize

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