Wheat choice makes sense

MILLING WHEAT, not malting barley, is the spring crop choice for at least two West Lothian growers this spring.

Disappointed with low malting premiums, and the struggle to grow spring barley successfully on his heavy-clay soils, Mike Eagers, farm manager on the Sentry Farms contract-farmed Hopetoun Estate near Edinburgh is making the switch to spring wheat for the first time this season.

“Premiums have been disappointingly low for spring barley,” he says.

And the situation isn’t likely to change this season, he suspects, with many Scottish growers struggling to establish their full quota of winter crops. “We’ve only got 500 of the 700 acres of winter wheat in, while another 100 acres may need to be patched or ripped up where soil slumped after drilling and the seed has rotted.”

That could potentially double his intended area of spring cropping from the planned 170ha (420 acres). Only 50ha (120 acres) will be spring barley this year now, he says. “That’s only in because we’re locked into a three-year fixed price contract offered by McCreath, Simpson and Prentice.”

This year, the contract pays 90/t for 60% of his tonnage, after receiving 90/t for everything in 2004. “It was the only company to offer such a contract.”

Without the contract he is open to the market price for spring barley. “Some won’t even give you a price until after you’ve sold it.”

Further local price pressure is likely following the closing of maltsters at Leith and Carnoustie, adds his Agrovista agronomist Jonathan Cahalin. “That’s taken 92,000t out of the south-central Scottish market. It’s obvious what will happen to the price.”

The perceived shifting rejection criteria are another frustration for growers, he adds. “The cost implications of rejections, and the fact the goal posts seem to move leads to a certain amount of resentment.”

Deductions are a common concern for Mr Eagers’ spring barley. “It’s a marginal farm for growing spring barley. We’re more suited to wheat,” he says.

“Spring barley doesn’t like anything other than an ideal seed-bed, something that is not always possible on our heavy-clay soils.”

And unlike wheat, spring barley doesn’t compensate very well if it gets away to a poor start, adds Mr Cahalin.

Growing spring wheat should be less of a risk, says Mr Eagers. “Other growers in the area have achieved 3t/acre with varieties with a lot lower potential than the new Group 2 Tybalt. If we don’t make the milling grade we’ve still got 3t/acre of feed wheat, which will make us slightly more than malting quality barley.”

One of those local growers with a history of producing 3t/acre(7.5t/ha) is Bo”ness grower Robert Kirk. He turned to spring wheat around five years ago, particularly where following Brussels sprouts. Growing low nitrogen malting barley was a struggle where the sprouts had retained soil nitrogen, he says.

“If we don’t get the premium, malting barley doesn’t stack up. But we’ve always got to grow a spring crop after veg, and with milling wheat we’re looking for protein. The two go together.”

For the past two seasons Mr Kirk has been growing Shiraz for milling on contract with Allied Grain, says Mr Cahalin. “The local Chancelot Mill at Leith no longer requires Shiraz, and as a feed variety it doesn’t add up.”

Instead both growers will be planting the new group 2 variety Tybalt, which offers significantly higher yields than either Shiraz or fellow Group 1 variety Paragon. “Yields are 15% above Paragon on the HGCA Recommended lists.”

Contracts are available for Tybalt for a fixed price of 81/t, 5/t less than for Paragon, but growers are locked into delivering a certain tonnage at a specific quality. “If they can’t deliver that, they have to make good the difference,” says Mr Cahalin.

But those prices should be available to growers entering into marketing agreements, he suggests.

Spring barley isn’t the answer for everyone’s prayers as shown by a 3t/ha yield difference between light and medium to heavy soils in HGCA trials. “Both growers are on medium to heavier soils. That’s a key for spring wheat,” he says.

Spring wheat is relatively easy to grow, he notes. “Nitrogen timing is a bit different. You need 40% in the seed-bed, 30% at T1 and the remaining 30% at flag leaf. Pulling that last nitrogen back a bit later helps with the grain protein.”

Neither take-all nor eyespot should be of much concern despite the crop being a second cereal in some cases. “It’s achieved 3t/acre without any issues following wheat,” Mr Cahalin concludes.