Soft feed wheat newcomer looks promising for the North

New soft-milling feed wheat variety Zealum is attracting interest from growers and merchants, especially in Scotland, as it shows better disease resistance and stiffer straw than old favourites Barrell and Skyscraper.

Soft millers are favoured in Scotland and the north of England because of the big demand from the distilling industry, and David Fuller-Shapcott, farming in the Scottish Borders, is growing 16ha of Zealum as a seed crop.

See also: Why it may be time to drop susceptible winter wheat varieties

Local market demand and premium contracts for soft wheats for distilling have led him to look at this sector, and he had grown the soft variety Basset on the farm in the past, but it is now no longer on the AHDB Recommended List (RL).

“Zealum came along as an alternative to Basset and the variety’s very stiff straw gives excellent standing power, a very attractive asset when really pushing a crop,” he says.

10t/ha wheat crops

David Fuller

David Fuller-Shapcott © MAG/David Jones

This season, David is growing 100ha of winter wheat at Sweethope Farm, just north of Kelso, on heavy clay loam soils where he is harvesting 10t/ha crops using 160kg/ha in a three-way split of liquid nitrogen.

“In the current nitrogen climate, being able to grow a 10t/ha crop on just 160kg/ha is a good achievement, I think,” he says.

The variety was sown on 11 October into min-tilled land at a seed rate of 240kg/ha, emerged quickly and has looked good ever since despite the cold, late spring.

“We’re happy with progress to date and will be looking for the crop to produce a per-hectare yield in the teens,” he says.

David is growing the seed crop for Berwick-upon-Tweed-based merchant McCreath Simpson & Prentice, which serves an area from the Scottish Highland to North Yorkshire. This is largely a soft distilling market, with a 400,000-tonne annual demand.

Septoria concerns

Laura Beaty, the group’s seed grain director, says the soft wheat sector is dominated by crosses of the variety Cougar, and the high septoria seen in 2020/21 hit those varieties hard.

This created concern about a breakdown of resistance, and so Zealum brings in additional genetic diversity.

She sees the variety being a successor to Jackal and Elation, possibly replacing Barrel and also chipping away at Skyscraper’s dominance in Scotland. It is also suited to early sowings, which are prevalent in Scotland.

“Increasingly, growers are looking for varieties that are more forgiving, both in terms of management and cost. Zealum achieves both objectives, its suitability for early drilling and long sowing window offering plenty of options,” she says.

The variety has the same RL fungicide-treated and untreated yields as Skyscraper, but shows better septoria at 5.8 compared with Skyscraper’s 4.9 and a resistance to lodging with a plant growth regulator (PGR) of 8 compared with Skyscraper’s 6, on a 1-9 scale where a higher figure indicates the variety shows the character to a high degree.

However, Skyscraper is two days earlier to mature than Zealum, which can be important for Scottish growers.

Standing power

Further south, Ben Chapman, Harlow Agricultural Merchants’ area manager and agronomist for central and south Essex, says good standing power is a key characteristic his customers increasingly want, and it is almost a given that those with poor standing power will not be considered.

“After a very dry February, followed by a very wet March, some growers were unable to apply a T0 or early PGRs as the land was waterlogged, so having varieties like Zealum that withstand these pressures has been of significant benefit,” he says.

Dr Kirsty Richards, cereals product manager at Zealum’s breeder KWS, says the variety has the key characteristics needed for northern growers with just under 40% of the AHDB north region’s wheats in soft Group 4 varieties.

“It’s done well in northern distilling markets, thanks to consistently good spirit yield and processability in the plant. It may also be suitable for other soft wheat milling applications such as cake production or bioethanol manufacture,” she says.

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